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Bolsonaro’s 'New' Climate Change Promises Weren’t New at All

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest on August 17, 2019.
Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest on August 17, 2019.
Ricardo Salles

Ricardo Salles

Brazil’s minister of environment

“President Bolsonaro presented a lot of news in regard to the Brazilian position [to fight climate change]” during the Leader’s Summit on Climate in Washington.


On April 22, during the U.S.-led Leaders' Summit on Climate, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made international headlines for committing to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change in Brazil.

Brazil’s minister of environment, Ricardo Salles, posted a video on Twitter boasting that Bolsonaro had “presented a lot of news in regard to the Brazilian position [to fight climate change].”

Salles added that “[Bolsonaro] reaffirmed what he had said in a letter to President Biden about eliminating illegal deforestation by 2030,” and that “Brazil’s commitment is to reduce 37 percent of emissions [by 2025].”

However, Salles’ implication that these were new pledges was misleading. In fact, they predate Bolsonaro’s government.

Let’s start with deforestation.

In June 2015, then President Dilma Rousseff made the identical commitment during a joint announcement with then-U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

In its first so-called “nationally determined contribution,” (a document each country provided to outline strategies for achieving Paris agreement goals), Brazil included “zero illegal deforestation by 2030” as one of the measures it would take to reduce global warming.

The Paris accord documents must be updated every five years, and Brazil’s December 2020 update, drafted under Bolsonaro, no longer included zero illegal deforestation.

So, that pledge from Brazil was not new, and Bolsonaro’s decision to drop it last year undercuts his proclaimed ardor for the idea. has previously reported (here, here, and here) on Bolsonaro’s checkered record when it comes to protecting the Amazon rainforest.

Then there is the pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent by 2025. This commitment initially came not from Bolsonaro, but again from Rousseff.

During a United Nations Summit in September 2015, she proclaimed: "Brazil's contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be 37% by 2025, and by 2030 our ambition is to reduce it by 43%.”

Last year, however, Bolsonaro’s government did some dodgy math.

In its 2020 NDC update, Brazil increased its 2005 baseline (the starting point for reductions) for overall carbon dioxide emissions (the main greenhouse gas) to 2.84 billion tons a year from 2.1 billion. In effect, the change means Brazil can emit hundreds of millions more tons of CO2 while meeting the same percentage reduction.

In light of that change, six climate activists are suing Bolsonaro’s government for what they call a "carbon trick maneuver,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reported this past April.

Aerial view of a deforested piece of land in the Amazon rainforest on August 23, 2019.
Aerial view of a deforested piece of land in the Amazon rainforest on August 23, 2019.

In his social media video, Salles also emphasized Bolsonaro’s promise to “double the resources for environmental inspection and several other important measures throughout the year, to strengthen the environmental agenda.”

But a day after the summit – and a day before Salles published the video – Brazil’s president approved a 24 percent cut to the budget of the environment ministry and the agencies it oversees, according to the official government newspaper (Diario Oficial da Uniao).

The budget was reduced from 2.6 billion reais ($481 million) in 2020 to 2 billion reais ($370.2 million). Details of the budget were not publicized, so, according to CNN Brasil, it is not clear exactly how much funding will go toward environmental inspection.

As previously reported, the Bolsonaro government’s environmental policy has been under increasing scrutiny. His campaign rhetoric in 2018 and subsequent ministry picks have resulted in loosening environmental protection laws and the dismantling of some environmental agencies and protection programs for indigenous lands.

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) had a 23 percent reduction in funding for prevention and control of forest fires in 2019, Reuters reported. IBAMA received a 25 percent cut in the 2020 federal budget.

The push to relax environmental protections has continued during the coronavirus pandemic. Last April, Salles fired IBAMA’s director and two of its inspection chiefs. The firings followed a large-scale agency operation against land grabbers in indigenous lands in the state of Para. Salles claimed the firings were unrelated.

On December 24, 2020, Brazil's Supreme Court Justice Carmen Lucia asked Bolsonaro and Salles to provide annual data on deforestation and measures adopted by the government in the Amazon. Her request came in response to a lawsuit by the Sustainability Network party, which accused the government of failing to carry out environmental preservation policies and demanded concrete measures to control deforestation.

The Bolsonaro government denied the accusations, citing the use of the military to fight destruction of the Amazon rainforest and a 120-day ban on forest-clearing fires as evidence of its conservation effort.

Between August 2019 and July 2020, deforestation in the Amazon grew by 9.5 percent, compared to the previous season, surpassing 4,247 square miles (about the area of Connecticut). The deforested area recorded that season was the largest since 2008.