Some claim that Latin America countries put their economic development interests above preserving the environment

Dec 13, 2014 | 0 comments

chl oil pollu

Oil pollutes a pond in Ecuador’s Amazon region following oil drilling operations.

Eco-warriors on the front lines of climate diplomacy often frame the environmental conflict between the developed and the developing world as a version of the notorious skirmish between Lawrence H. Summers and José Lutzenberger, which happened on the sidelines of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, widely seen as the official start of the world’s interest in climate change.

Mr. Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, had lent his signature to a leaked memo making the case that poor countries would make an efficient dump for the trash of the rich.

“The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that,” the memo argued. Mr. Lutzenberger, an iconoclastic agronomist who was then Brazil’s environmental minister, responded that Mr. Summers’s reasoning “is perfectly logical but totally insane.”

It can be tempting to understand the greenhouse gas negotiations this week in Lima, Peru, in the same light: a clash between developing countries fighting to preserve their vulnerable environments from the rich representatives of multinational capitalism who want to exploit them.

But the brawl between the American economist and the Brazilian environmentalist is the wrong historical precedent.

Particularly these days, Brazil doesn’t want its environment protected from development. Stunned by an abrupt slowdown in economic growth over the last three years, it urgently wants its environment exploited, whether this means offering cheaper gas to encourage driving or investing trillions in developing its oil reserves.

“There is a strategic vision in Brazil that it must close the gap that still separates it from rich, developed countries,” said Sérgio Leitão, head of public policy for Greenpeace in São Paulo. “To do that it must burn its natural capital, which is what Americans and Europeans did.”

Indeed, the relevant precedent happened two decades before the Rio Summit, in 1972, when the United Nations organized its first-ever environmental summit meeting in Sweden.

In the midst of what was called its “economic miracle,” Brazil was that year inaugurating the Trans-Amazonian highway. It was planning a mega-dam on the Paraná River at Itaipú and building a nuclear power plant at Angra dos Reis. Brazil not only saw no purpose in protecting its indigenous forests — it even offered tax incentives to replace them with lucrative Caribbean pine and eucalyptus.

Pollution meant progress. Brazil wouldn’t be hoodwinked by conservation proposals that just aimed to keep it in poverty. In Stockholm, João Paulo dos Reis Veloso, the representative of Brazil’s military government, invited investors from around the world to “Come pollute Brazil!”

Grudgingly, perhaps, rich countries have accepted the notion that poorer countries that emit much less CO2 should be given a break to cut emissions more slowly — or in some cases not at all — and should be provided with cash and technology to help them limit their carbon footprint.

Yet as calls for substantial and immediate emissions cuts have grown more intense, environmental advocates and allied policy makers seem to be losing sight of developing countries’ nonnegotiable constraint: They will not agree to grow less.

The tension between climate and development crops up all over Latin America. Chile, poor in fossil fuels and rich in wind and sun, might seem like a natural base for a low-carbon economy.

Yet Aldo Cerda, who heads corporate affairs at the country’s budding climate exchange, says the intensity of Chile’s carbon use is set to grow significantly over the next 15 years.

The tension is also evident in Peru, host of the climate change talks, where the government watered down environmental regulations over the summer to try to pump up flagging growth.

“Peru is still a work in progress,” said Joe Keenan, who heads the Nature Conservancy in Latin America. “Some people in the government are trying to put together a forest protection plan. But there are also plans to put new highways into the Amazon.”

In Ecuador, conflicts between government interests in producing more oil threaten the reputation of the country’s president, Rafael Correa. Correa, who acknowledges that the extraction of non-renewable resources is not good for the environment, says income is needed to “build human capital” so that the country can wean itself of the need to drill and mine.

Resolving this tension is proving difficult, at best. Take the report issued this year by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. It worked on the assumption that every country would cut annual carbon emissions from energy to only 1.6 tons per person by 2050.

Brazil, where emissions from energy rose to almost 2.4 tons per person last year, is unlikely to agree to that anytime soon.

“Brazilians are very far from understanding that the climate question is an obstacle that slows Brazil’s exploitation of natural resources,” Mr. Leitão, the Greenpeace representative, told me. “On the contrary, Brazil believes that it still has the right to some quota of increased emissions.”

In a 2012 study, Elizabeth A. Stanton, an environmental economist at Synapse Energy Economics, noted that projections by the International Energy Agency, on which leading climate models are based, assume that the least developed countries will fail to close the prosperity gap with the rich of the world.

Income per person in the world’s poorest countries — about one-27th of that of people in the rich world — would inch ahead to one-20th in the year 2105.

“This assumption — that economic development will fail in the poorest countries — results in lower business-as-usual global emissions, allowing emissions reduction targets to be less stringent in richer countries,” she wrote. “What if low-income countries experience genuine economic development?”

The world’s poorest countries may well fail to overcome their misery. Still, the development imperative will beat the climate imperative every time.

Brazil, by some accounts, is the fourth largest contributor to climate change after the United States, China and Russia. At the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in 2009, it promised deep cuts to CO2 and, until recently, it was well on track to deliver.

Deforestation in the Amazon — the country’s main contribution to climate change — slowed sharply. Even as mineral and agricultural exports powered an economic boom that brought almost 25 million Brazilians out of poverty, greenhouse gas emissions fell by almost half from 2004 to 2012.

But when Brazil’s fast-paced economy got stuck last year, concerns about the environment dropped down the priority list.

A tax on gasoline was slashed in hopes of priming the economic pump, a decision that removed ethanol’s competitive advantage. A slump in hydroelectric power generation caused by a persistent drought was met by a sustained investment in gas and coal.

And greenhouse gas emissions rose by nearly 8 percent in 2013 compared to the year before.

“Until 2010 we had both high growth and falling emissions,” noted Tasso Azevedo, former director of the Environment Ministry’s National Forest Program and one of the lead designers of Brazil’s plan to combat deforestation. “Today Brazil is in the worst of worlds, emitting more and generating less growth.”

There is evidence that the tension between economic development and climate change is not inevitable. Maybe greenhouse gas emissions can be limited at little or no economic cost.

Brazil, experts argue, could stop deforestation entirely. “We could double grain production to 350 million tons without felling any more forest,” said Eduardo Assad of the Brazilian

Agricultural Research Corporation. And Brazil’s large ethanol industry still shows enormous promise.

But how and when Brazil and other developing countries commit to a low-carbon path will always depend on whether there is enough growth to keep living standards on the rise.

“We have so many tools to turn things around,” Mr. Assad said.

The question is whether they will draw the needed investment. “This could be solved quickly if we can turn around the economic slowdown,” he said, “but if we can’t overcome the stagnant economy, it’s going to be at a turtle’s pace.”

Credit: The New York Times,



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