The United States, whose credibility in the environmental area was badly damaged after the term of Donald Trump, has returned to the front line of the fight against climate change. This is good news, because the world is still far off track to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade. However, at the summit that began this Thursday it became clear that, despite Washington’s efforts, the power and influence of the White House are not enough to solve a fundamental equation in the framework of this global challenge: the future of the Amazonia.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, despite staging an apparent shift in his policy regarding the largest rainforest on the planet, did not offer any new or concrete commitments. He promised to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030, but without committing to take concrete and urgent actions to reverse a true ecological catastrophe in the region. There is no doubt why: next year Bolsonaro will fight for re-election and in his electoral base are those who in Brazil defend the expansion of the agricultural, mineral and timber frontier over the jungle. That is precisely what Bolsonaro and his government have encouraged.
The data is unappealable: in 2020, while almost all sectors of the world economy slowed down and global GDP contracted by 3.5%, the rate of destruction of tropical forests increased by 12%. Brazil, which last year registered the highest rate of Amazon deforestation in more than a decade, today leads the emissions generated by slash and burn. As a great world example of preservation, Brazil is today the seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
What can Biden do to stop it? Both countries have been negotiating for weeks, but Brazil wants money to commit to fighting destruction and the United States, for its part, concrete results before shelling out a penny. Europe can – and must – join forces with Biden to make Bolsonaro back down. One option is to raise the tone and threaten embargoes on Brazilian products or block Brazil’s entry into the OECD, as well as freeze indefinitely the trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur. But, as the data reflects, the persuasive power of the West, traditionally a powerful partner, has waned. China has changed the rules of the game. It was recently summarized for me by a rancher and land speculator accused of causing illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon: “What do we care about the United States and Europe now if we have the Chinese who buy everything from us?”
Beijing, despite its important commitments yesterday in terms of reducing emissions from coal combustion, has so far not said a word about the destruction of the Amazon that largely causes wood, iron ore and, above all , the beef and soybeans it buys for tens of billions of dollars from Brazil. However, it is the most decisive and influential country. With $ 104 billion of bilateral trade in 2020, China and Brazil have one of the most important trade relations in the world. To understand its magnitude, it is enough to understand that this trade is greater than that which Brazil has with the United States and with Europe combined. And not only that: for Brazil, its commercial relationship with China is vital, since the sales of agricultural products and minerals to China report a surplus that in 2020 was 33,000 million dollars. A retaining wall in the form of currency that shields the country from financial crises. In March, without going any further, Brazil sold to China 5,000 million dollars in agricultural products. More than 80% were soybeans and beef.
Not everything that Brazil sells to China comes from the Amazon, but dependence on this economic and agricultural frontier continues to increase, and Bolsonaro’s Brazil has been very active in promoting it through infrastructures that have made it possible to expand the areas of soybean or livestock pastures, as well as improving the efficiency of the supply chain. Roads have been paved and productivity improvements promoted with cheap credit; New rail lines are also planned to transport more production. In 2020, for example, the amount of soybeans and corn that Brazil exported through Amazonian river ports equaled the amount that left through the south and southeast, traditionally the agro-industrial heart of the country. It is a milestone, a turnaround, reflecting the growing importance of the Amazon to the country’s economy and its plans to shore up itself as a food-exporting superpower.
Biden cannot allow the Amazon, which has already lost 20% of its forest, to be looted. Brazil can continue to grow and its agriculture continue to prosper without causing deforestation. Therefore, if he wants to show that he truly wants to lead the global battle against the climate, the US president must focus on convincing China to raise the tone and threaten to stop its purchases from Brazil if Bolsonaro does not stop deforestation. The climate of increasing confrontation between Beijing and Washington should not be an obstacle. It is time for diplomacy to play its role and the two world powers join forces for a common goal. Europe, led by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, can also play an important role in convincing Beijing that it is time to step up and join forces against Bolsonaro. Spain, the third largest importer of Brazilian soybeans, has to act. At stake is the future of the planet.
Heriberto Araújo is a journalist. He has written three books on China, the last one, The Unstoppable Chinese Conquest (Critic, 2015), and in 2022 he will publish Masters of the Lost Land, a three-year investigation on violence and deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.