This article was originally published by Agência Pública.
The Lula government is at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai praising Brazil’s achievements in the first year of his third term. The most significant among them is a 50 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation in the first 10 months of the year, compared to the same period last year.
Amazon deforestation is the main source—both historically and currently—of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil. Therefore, this reduction is an extremely relevant outcome to present at the summit, which aims to accelerate global efforts to combat climate change. Brazil holds an advantage in a global scenario where emissions reached a record high last year, giving it the standing to make demands.
However, the announcement that the country will join OPEC+, the extended group of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, coupled with plans to open a new oil exploration front in the Equatorial Margin (including the controversial mouth of the Amazon River), raises questions about how much this move towards fossil fuels may compromise efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
At the request of Agência Pública, researchers working on the country's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimation System (SEEG) did the math and concluded that if all the projected oil available in the Equatorial Margin—the coastal region in the northern part of Brazil, between the states of Amapá and Rio Grande do Norte—is exploited, the greenhouse gas emitted from burning that oil would nullify, for the planet, the gains achieved through the reduction of Amazon deforestation.
Projections suggest there is somewhere between 10 and 30 billion barrels of oil in the Equatorial Margin. According to calculations by Felipe Barcellos of the Institute of Energy and Environment (IEMA), if all this oil were burned, it would emit between 4 billion and 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas. This is nearly equivalent to what the United States (5.3 billion) and China (12.3 billion tons) emitted in 2020.
Brazil's target under the Paris Agreement (or in climate jargon, its Nationally Determined Contribution, NDC) is that by 2025, annual emissions will be around 1.34 billion tons of CO2-equivalent and by 2030, they should drop to about 1.21 gigatons (Gt) per year—a 53 percent reduction from 2005 levels. In other words, the emissions from burning oil in the Equatorial Margin would be at least three times what Brazil committed to emit by 2030.
Considering that the country also aims to eliminate Amazon deforestation by the end of the decade, the potential to not only nullify gains but also reverse the trend becomes more evident.
According to SEEG, if indeed Amazon deforestation is zeroed by 2030, as promised by Lula when he took office, even if no other emission reductions are made in other sectors of the economy (such as energy and agriculture, for example), Brazil will be emitting about 905 million tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) in seven years. This is 25 percent less than the 1.2 GtCO2e projected in the NDC for 2030, showing that Brazil would contribute even more to the global climate than its goal indicates.
In this case, the emissions from oil become even more glaring: 4 billion tons of CO2 is 4.4 times what Brazil might be emitting if Amazon deforestation is halted.
"This amount of emissions would be roughly equivalent to continuing deforestation until 2035 or even 2060 (assuming we meet the NDC in 2025 and then gradually slow down deforestation)," explained David Tsai, coordinator of SEEG, to Pública. "In other words, exploring the Equatorial Margin would be equivalent to the damage caused by delaying the zero deforestation target by 5 to 30 years."
Another way to view the potential burning of fossil fuel in the Equatorial Margin is to look back. The confidence of the Lula government in achieving zero deforestation by 2030 stems from a similar accomplishment in the past. Between 2004 and 2012—during the Lula 1, Lula 2, and Rousseff administrations—the deforestation rate dropped by 83 percent, reaching the lowest level measured since 1989.
In an event on December 2 at COP, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Marina Silva stated that with this reduction, Brazil prevented the release of 5 billion tons of CO2e into the atmosphere during that period.
The calculation of potential oil emissions does not necessarily mean that this carbon will add to Brazil's contribution to global warming. It may not be included in the country's account, as it might not be consumed domestically but exported. However, this makes little difference to the atmosphere because the planet is one. Tsai commented: "It will be a damage to the world anyway."
This contrasts with the official government position in Dubai. Addressing other heads of state and government at the COP28 high-level plenary on December 1, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emphasized the 50 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period last year to urge other leaders to act.
"Deforestation worldwide accounts for only 10 percent of global emissions. Even if we don't cut down another tree, the Amazon could reach its point of no return if other countries don't do their part," he declared, acknowledging that fossil fuel consumption is the main driver of global warming worldwide.
"The increase in global temperature could trigger an irreversible process of Amazon savannization. The energy, industry, and transportation sectors emit many greenhouse gases. We have to deal with all these sources," he said, advocating for everyone to strive to restrict global warming to 1.5°C.
Earlier, in the COP opening session, he also urged, "It's time to address the slow pace of planet decarbonization and work for an economy less dependent on fossil fuels."
About 24 hours later, however, on the morning of December 2, in a meeting with civil society organizations and social movements at COP28, Lula confirmed that Brazil will join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Allies (OPEC+), which brings together 13 nations allied with the main OPEC group. This had already been stated on December 1 by Minister of Mines and Energy Alexandre Silveira after government meetings in Saudi Arabia.
As the audience consisted mainly of environmentalists within COP, Lula quickly attempted to downplay the decision. "I think it's important for us to participate because we need to convince oil-producing countries that they need to prepare for the end of fossil fuels," Lula said.
"To prepare means taking advantage of their profits from oil and investing it so that continents like Africa and Latin America can produce the renewable fuels they need, especially green hydrogen," he asserted. However, there was no opportunity for questions from journalists, and he did not explain how Brazil would go about convincing oil-producing countries.
The night before, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Marina Silva was asked by Pública if it would be a contradiction for Brazil to prioritize defending the 1.5ºC target at COP28 and also join OPEC+.
"If it is to bring the debate on the green economy, the need to decarbonize the planet… It is precisely to bring the debate that needs to be faced in the spaces of those major fossil fuel producers, which is the main culprit for the warming of the planet," she said.
In a meeting with civil society, Lula admitted that Brazil will join the OPEC+ group. Among civil society members, the explanation didn't sit well, mainly because the government has given several indications that it does not intend to establish a timeline for phasing out fossil fuels.
"If this is true [wanting to influence OPEC], Brazil should have already committed to the so-called phase-out of fossil fuels. There is no way to get close to the largest oil producers who are united, with a vague promise of decarbonization that has no set date. Brazil should have already joined a disposition to build a timeline," commented Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, in a video on social media.
"Brazil says one thing but does another at COP28. It's unacceptable that the same country that claims to defend the goal of restricting global warming to 1.5°C is now announcing its alignment with the group of the world's largest oil producers," said Leandro Ramos, program director of Greenpeace Brazil, in a press release.
"Despite not knowing yet what the format of OPEC+ will be, we know that OPEC functions as a cartel to influence the international price of oil through supply control. Therefore, announcing Brazil's entry into the organization in the midst of 2023, while we should be focused on accelerating the country's energy transition and creating plans to progressively eliminate fossil fuels, is a completely misguided and dangerous decision," he added.
"It is not enough to commit to zero deforestation; the Brazilian government needs to take a stand against fossil fuels if it wants to assume a leadership role in global climate action. This inconsistency could jeopardize its position in demanding more ambitious targets from developed countries and will cost dearly to Brazilian climate policy," Ramos continues.
The Presidential Communications Secretariat, as well as the Ministries of Environment and Mines and Energy, did not respond prior to publication to a request for comment on emission data.
Giovana Girardi is a journalist who has been covering science and the environment since 2002. In 2022, she launched the narrative podcast Tempo Quente (Rádio Novelo), which investigates the political and economic forces that gain from Brazil's inaction on deforestation and climate change.