Two Countries Join The Global Effort To Cut Carbon

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andre Penner

Deforestation -- both legal and illegal -- has been a huge driver of carbon emissions from Brazil, home to the Amazon Basin, which contains the largest tropical forest in the world.

As the unofficial Oct. 1 deadline approaches, more countries are submitting their intended nationally developed contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations, showing how they will contribute to carbon emission reductions. This week, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia all added their plans to the list, offering two different pathways for developing nations.

Brazil’s pledge will keep carbon emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels through 2025, and 43 below 2005 levels by 2030.

This pledge does not actually represent a drop over Brazil’s current carbon emissions, because the country has dramatically lowered emissions in the past few years. In fact, a 2014 study showed that Brazil has kept 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere since 2004.

According to Brazil’s submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Brazil’s current actions in the global effort against climate change represent one of the largest undertakings by any single country to date, having reduced its emissions by 41 percent in 2012 in relation to 2005 levels.”

However, it does represent a significant decrease in per capita emissions, which is especially significant in a growing economy. Brazil was the seventh-largest carbon emitter in 2013 overall, including land use, and it was the eighth-largest emitter per capita. But the country estimates by 2025 its current commitments will represent a 66 percent reduction of greenhouse gases as compared to GDP, and a 75 percent reduction by 2030, both in relation to 2005 levels. While GDP is not a predictor of population, or vice versa, its critical to contain emissions in the face of growth.

“Brazil’s climate plan marks the first time a major developing country has committed to an absolute reduction of emissions,” Rachel Biderman, director of World Resources Institute Brazil said in a statement. “This is an important shift because it offers greater certainty that emissions can be cut even as Brazil’s economy expands.”

The commitments outlined in the document mostly formalize goals outlined in Brazil’s agreement with the United States, which was announced in June. Brazil will increase renewable energy in its electricity sector to 20 percent — not including hydropower, which has had damaging environmental repercussions in the country. It will also reforest 12 million hectares — some 46,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

Deforestation has been a significant part of Brazil’s emissions. The Amazon Basin, which covers 1.4 billion acres and makes up half of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest is one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world, making it a critical component of addressing climate change. But deforestation — often illegal, and largely for agricultural reasons — has plagued the developing nation.

For more on how Brazil is combating illegal deforestation, check out this story.

Some environmentalists were hoping Brazil’s INDC would include a pledge to stop deforestation altogether, but the submission falls short of that goal. Instead, the country is shooting to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030.

Biderman said in a statement that the reforestation and deforestation pledges weren’t as ambitious as they could have been.

“The zero illegal deforestation goal is actually a step back from the country’s previous commitments,” she said. “Curbing emissions from agricultural lands will depend in part on greater investment in low-carbon practices.”

Indonesia, another country that submitted its INDC this week, also has giant forest reserves — and a shocking 63 percent of the country’s emissions are due to land use change and peat and forest fires. Indonesia is the sixth-largest emitter, due almost entirely to land use. Its INDC is not nearly as ambitious as Brazil’s. Indonesia has a moratorium in place on clearing “primary forests” (forests that have never been cleared or disrupted) and on converting peat bogs, an unusually effective type of carbon sink, which can release huge amounts of carbon when burned.

The moratorium went into effect in 2010 and expires in 2016.

Indonesia’s voluntary pledges are not even counted against 2005 emissions levels (used by countries such as Brazil and the United States) or the even more stringent 1990 levels (used by the European Union). The Southeast Asian nation pledges to reduce its overall carbon emissions by 26 percent against the business as usual projections for 2020.

Notably, though, that pledge increases to 41 percent when international support is considered. Developing nations have long argued that they are bearing the brunt of carbon emission reductions without having enjoyed the benefits of the industrialization that is largely responsible for climate change.

Now, they are tasked with reducing carbon emissions while trying to reduce poverty, increase access to electricity, and transition to a modern economy.

“Brazil is a developing country with several challenges regarding poverty eradication, education, public health, employment, housing, infrastructure, and energy access,” the country’s INDC says.

The United Nations will host climate talks in Paris in December that are considered critical to global efforts to keep global warming to less than 2°C. India is the only major emitter whose plan is outstanding, and it is expected to submit one on Thursday.

While the current commitments fall short of what will ultimately be necessary, they still represent significant — and meaningful — international progress towards combating climate change.

“Paris has already prompted pledges for the largest carbon cuts in history,” Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh said in a statement. “We’ll need continued leadership to build on those gains and avert the worst dangers of climate catastrophe,” she added.