Brazil's challenges at COP27

Image: Jeswin Thomas


It is not just deforestation, but livestock activity itself that is and will be increasingly at the epicenter of contemporary climate discussions

President Lula's presence at COP27 repositions Brazil as a decisive player in sustainable development. One of the most ambitious proposals of the socio-environmental movements that support the new government is that the country lead the formation of an international bloc formed by Brazil, Indonesia and Congo (BICs) with the purpose of zeroing deforestation in tropical forests. The world is ready to invest in the sustainable use of this gigantic heritage, whose destruction would jeopardize the entire global effort in the fight against climate change.

To give you an idea of ​​the magnitude of the problem, the Panamazon alone stores an amount of carbon corresponding to something between 10 and 15 years of global emissions. And it is clear that the protection and sustainable use of tropical forests requires not only severe repression of criminals who deforest them, but also social policies that contribute to raising the living standards of the populations that live in their territories. Two of the greatest environmental powers on the planet (Brazil and now Colombia, with Gustavo Petro) are seriously committed to forest protection and regeneration.

But there is a second challenge for Brazil at COP27, in a way, even more difficult than deforestation: it is the reduction in methane emissions, whose main global vector (and even more among us) is cattle raising. Methane stays longer than CO2 in the atmosphere, but has a much greater destructive impact. If CO emissions2 were suddenly stopped, the average global temperature would not immediately stop rising. Decreasing methane is the most efficient and immediate way to avoid reaching points of no return (tipping points) on climate change. At COP26, in Glasgow, 125 countries (including Brazil) committed themselves to targets for an immediate reduction in emissions of this powerful greenhouse gas.

Combating deforestation does not involve any kind of structural change in the organization of the country's economic life. But reducing methane emissions requires a series of transformations in production models, in the technical bases of production, in consumer behavior and, therefore, in the markets themselves.

More than that, the evidence that the supply of meat has so far been the determining element in the fact that between 25% and 35% of global emissions come from agriculture and livestock, increases the global challenge to this sector and gives rise to technological alternatives to its current expansion patterns. If it were a country, the global herd of ruminants would rank second in greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of the United States and only behind China. And Brazil, as shown by a recent study by the Climate Observatory, is the fifth largest emitter of methane in the world, with 5,5% of global emissions. 72% of Brazilian methane emissions derive from its cattle herd.

Even if the success of the Lula government in seriously repressing deforestation undoes the current link between forest destruction and livestock, the asset of having the largest cattle herd in the world and the condition of the largest global exporter of meat becomes a threat. To imagine that this threat can be circumvented with the statement that the world will need Brazilian beef is illusory. The Chinese Food Guide announces a 50% reduction in meat consumption by 2030. Boston Consulting Group predicts that Europe and the United States will reach the peak of meat consumption in 2025. A recent article on the IMF blog recommends a methane tax, which would be in the range of US$ 70 per ton issued.

More important, however, than these changes in food consumption patterns are the technological transformations that the world's supply of proteins is going through. Paul Gilding and Pablo Salas have just published an important work for Institute for Sustainability Leadership from the University of Cambridge showing that the markets themselves are reacting to the threats posed by conventional forms of livestock with technological alternatives that have been gaining strength among global investors.

His study argues that the global agrifood system is undergoing a transition that can be compared to that which has been dominating decarbonization investments in the area of ​​energy and mobility. At the forefront of this transition are four forms of artificial proteins: those based on plants (already on the market), those from cell culture, those that rely on precision fermentation, and those that come from insects.

The newly published book by George Monbiot – regenesis. How to feed the world without destroying the planet (Penguin) – goes further: regenerative livestock is a contradiction in terms. Using land for cattle raising is, in his opinion, taking away surfaces that could be used for forest growth and, therefore, for capturing greenhouse gases. Instead of continuing to increase herds, contemporary societies must, in George Monbiot's view, invest in alternative proteins, which are emerging with force.

In summary, it is not just deforestation, but livestock activity itself that is and will be increasingly at the epicenter of contemporary climate discussions.

Brazil currently has important initiatives (albeit very minor) for bovine breeding that respects animal dignity, with pasture management that captures carbon and regenerates biodiversity. EMBRAPA's expertise in this domain is also important. The threats that weigh on such a strategic sector of Brazilian economic life must be faced with research capable of finding ways for meat to reach Brazilians and export markets with the guarantee that their production methods capture carbon and regenerate biodiversity.

It is much more than just stopping the occupation of recently deforested areas. It is a call for the world's largest meat exporter to promote innovations guided by the urgencies of the climate, the regeneration of biodiversity and healthy eating.

*Ricardo Abramovay is senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

Originally published in the newspaper Economic value.

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