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Environmental Policies

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
June 4, 2014
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Although its not much in vogue to praise President Obama, this week he gets my thanks for launching what history may record as one of the most significant steps to mitigate climate change taken by any major economy to date. The details matter and I'll get to those right away. Why so much hopeful gratitude? For one thing, he's showed leadership in assuring the environmental health of the planet long-term. But short-term and more selfishly, thanks to Obama I don't have to write yet another lament about how the Copa will show the world 'why Brazil is so screwed up' or offer some "strategic" idea for Vice President Biden's meeting next week with Dilma.

Obama's proposal would cut carbon emissions in the power sector by 30 percent nationwide below 2005 levels--levels that were notably 10 percent higher than 2012 levels. In the United States carbon pollution accounts for nearly forty percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Coal-fired power plants, especially in the era of natural gas, have seen better days. It will take at least a year for the new rules to go into effect. There will be lawsuits from fossil-fuel states and lots of chatter about how Obama is depriving Americans of jobs. But my guess is that the moral and economic incentives to transition toward a low-carbon economy will trump those voices in the long term.

Another major economy, Brazil, is the world's fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter, not from coal-fired power plants, but largely because of agriculture. Emissions from agriculture increased by twenty percent between 2005 and 2010, accounting for more than one-third the national total. And while Brazil did reduce deforestation-related emissions by over 70 percent between 2005 and 2010, continued deforestation and changes in land use still account for two-thirds of Brazil's emissions. According to the World Resources Institute, which operates some very innovative partnerships with Embrapa and Unicamp, left unregulated, Brazil's agriculture-related emissions are on track to grow by 23 percent by 2030. Brazil plans to reduce emissions by as much as 39 percent by 2020. Its Low Carbon Agriculture Plan (ABC) will make a contribute to meeting this goal, it is underfunded and has been slow to get off the ground. But the program is underfunded and has been slow to get off the ground. A new initiative, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, could help by giving agribusiness a tool to standardize, measure and report the impact of agriculture on global greenhouse gas emissions.

Election cycles and other differences make the comparison between American and Brazlian mitigation strategies imperfect. But I agree with Todd Stern, the lead US climate negotiator, who told me that Obama's initiative offers "good news for international climate negotiations," which depend "particularly upon the major economies" to be effective. Perhaps when Biden meets Dilma after the US-Ghana game, they'll have strategic agenda to discuss afterall.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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