The damage to the environment in Brazil – a brief overview

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By PAULO ARTAXO*

Brazilian society will have to work hard to recover the damage to the environment promoted over the last few years.

The year 2021 was very difficult for our country, in many respects. Not only because of the covid-19 pandemic, but mainly because of the strong economic, social and political degradation we are experiencing. In the environmental area, we observe the growing and accelerated degradation of Brazilian biomes, in addition to the contamination of water, soil and atmosphere. More generally, the project to dismantle public policies in vital areas such as education, science, health and the environment is clear, and it continues at full speed.

This year alone, we had the felling of more than 13 km² of forests in the Amazon, and the Pantanal had 60% of its area burned for the second consecutive year, in activities associated with environmental crimes. Agribusiness continues to advance in the Cerrado, since there is no implementation of land use policies aimed at preserving our ecosystems. Illegal mining continues to pollute our rivers with mercury, affecting the health of riverside dwellers, the indigenous population and the entire Amazon biome. And, to complete, extreme weather events marked central Brazil and brought energy and water insecurity to a large part of the population.

It is not uncommon to see, in the national and international media, headlines and editorials in which the Brazilian government is harshly criticized and repudiated for destroying public policies, laws and environmental protection agencies, stifling traditional institutions such as Ibama, ICMBio, Funai and others. And the results of these actions are configured in the advancement of environmental crimes and attacks on the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities.

It is noteworthy that these policies of destruction of the Brazilian State promoted by the Executive Power received support from the Legislative and Judiciary, which eroded basic principles of environmental protection, resulting in extensive areas deforested and degraded in all Brazilian biomes and ecosystems. Certainly, the social and economic impacts will be long-lasting, compounded by global environmental changes. The reduction in air, water and soil quality was one of the main consequences of these (un)coordinated actions.

It is important to point out that COP-26 meant a major setback in 2021, with regard to the issue of global governance on the environment. The main reason was the lack of concrete actions to face and minimize the impacts of ongoing climate change, one of the greatest threats to our society. COP-26 also frustrated expectations due to the refusal of developed countries to help poor countries to deal with the climate emergency, reduce their emissions and adapt. The consequence of this whole process is the increase in social inequalities, and everything indicates that they will be a strong factor of political instability in the near future.

Although the Brazilian government has signed a commitment to zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2028, we know that the chances of this happening are remote, after all, there is no public policy to strengthen key institutions such as Ibama, ICMBio, MMA, MCTI and associated bodies, so that this goal is achieved. If there really was interest, this would be included in the 2022 budget. That is, in practice, there is no increase in resources for this purpose, indicating that the goal was only “for the English to see”.

Due to the absence of concrete actions by the federal government, we saw, at COP-26, subnational action being imposed, with the presence of 12 governors, CEOs of large companies and the significant participation of civil society. I believe that this new framework can be an important engine for transforming our country into a fairer and more sustainable society.

And for 2022, what to expect? As we will have the same federal government, the same Congress dominated by ruralists and the same Judiciary, of course it would be naive to think about structural change. There are international pressures on the part of developed countries to reduce deforestation, and these can be intensified with trade sanctions in relation to the importation of meat, wood or soy from deforested regions. Perhaps this could mobilize the current Brazilian government in relation to its practices (in fact, there is internal pressure from large meat producers).

One of the serious problems we have today is the strong presence of criminal networks in the Amazon, whether through land grabbing of public or indigenous lands, the advance of illegal mining or the activities of illegal loggers. The fact is that criminal activities have come to dominate in the Amazon. In order to find a sustainable development model for the region, the first step is to curb illegal exploration activities and comply with what our Constitution says.

In addition to the Amazon, our environmental issues also affect most large cities, which continue to live with high levels of atmospheric pollution from vehicle emissions. For many years, the automobile industry prevented the implementation of actions aimed at improving pollutant emission standards, already in force in developed countries. Although we envision new emission standards for diesel vehicles, coming from the next stages of Proconve (Vehicle Emissions Control Program), the so-called L7 and P8, equivalent to the Euro 6 standard, in force in Europe, the impacts of the current highly pollutant will last for decades, increasing mortality in the urban population due to respiratory problems.

Another problem to be faced is the excessive and growing use of pesticides by Brazilian agribusiness, with a record number of authorizations for products banned in other countries and widely used in our country. In addition to contaminating our rivers, population and products, many of them are persistent compounds in the environment.
It is important to emphasize that Brazil has all the conditions to be a world power in sustainability, due to the strategic advantages in several sectors. Our energy matrix, for example, could benefit greatly from the large-scale use of solar and wind energy. In addition, it would be feasible to implement low-carbon agriculture, zero deforestation and serve as an example for our planet.

There is no easier, faster and cheaper way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to zero – for real and not for English to see – the deforestation of the Amazon. Brazil was already a leader in reducing emissions from deforestation and we could repeat the feat if we had a government committed to defending the interests of the population instead of benefiting and even stimulating predatory agribusiness. Opinion polls show that more than 80% of the Brazilian population is against the destruction of our natural resources. The implementation of policies to preserve our biodiversity is critical for the Amazon region and other Brazilian biomes.

We must not forget that the year 2022 will be marked by major elections, and many of the policies and laws currently being discussed in the National Congress concern either “finishing” the rest of the reform of environmental protection legislation in Brazil, or benefiting groups economic factors that can contribute to the electoral campaign (and re-election) of the current government. In this context, the environmental outlook for 2022 remains hopeless, as in 2021.

Brazilian society will have to work hard to recover the damage to the environment caused over the last few years and also so that we can achieve our commitments with the Paris Agreement and the UN SDGs. Of course, much of the environmental damage already done is irreversible, such as the destruction of tens of thousands of kilometers of forests. We can only hope that the public debates in 2022 will be a new opportunity to remember and discuss the values ​​that define us as a worthy nation in a democratic, inclusive and sustainable world.

* Paulo Artaxo is a full professor at the Department of Applied Physics at the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Originally published on Journal of USP .

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