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House Passes First Major Climate Bill in 10 Years
The U.S. House of Representatives approved its first major climate change legislation in a decade on Thursday, Reuters reported. The Climate Action Now Act would require President Donald Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris agreement, mandating that he outlines steps to reduce greenhouse emissions and prohibiting him from using federal funds to withdraw from the agreement.
The bill passed 231 to 190, with three Republicans crossing the aisle to approve it with the Democrats. It is unlikely to pass the Senate, but the Democrats see it as a way to stake out a climate position ahead of the 2020 election and to signal to the international community that a future Democratic president would stay in the agreement, The Washington Post reported.
"Passing this bill is an important signal to our allies, and my expectation is that when we act, we'll see increased ambition from them, too," Democratic Florida Representative Kathy Castor, who sponsored the legislation and chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, told the press before the vote, as The Washington Post reported.
#ClimateActionNow is the first major piece of climate legislation to pass the House in 10 years. It won’t be the last.— ClimateCrisis (@ClimateCrisis) May 2, 2019
🌎Keep leading in our communities
We’re working #ForThePeople, not the corporate polluters. pic.twitter.com/3lBksLhM4N
While Trump promised to withdraw from the Paris accord in June 2017, he cannot legally do so until November 2020.
"That's an interesting date, isn't it?" Castor said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill would "go nowhere" in the Senate and called it a "futile gesture to handcuff the U.S. economy," The New York Times reported.
In debating the measure, House Republicans focused on the Paris agreement's impact on the U.S. economy and either avoided discussions of the science of climate change itself or acknowledged it as an issue worth confronting. Instead of denying science, they argued that other countries in the agreement, particularly China and India, had not pledged enough.
The Obama administration had promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025; China promised to slow its emissions growth and reach peak carbon in 2030, and India said it would reduce the carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product while still allowing overall emissions to rise.
In the debate ahead of the vote, Texas Republican Representative Jodey Arrington called the deal "a gift to our enemies" and Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise said it would send jobs to China and India. However, not all Republicans portrayed climate action as a threat to the U.S. economy.
"Environmental protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive," Florida Republican Representative Vern Buchanan, one of three Republicans who voted for the act, said, as The Washington Post reported.
Moments ago I voted for legislation to keep the United States part of the international Paris Climate Accord. Global warming is a serious threat - especially to a state like #Florida with two coastlines vulnerable to rising waters. #Sayfie— Rep. Vern Buchanan (@VernBuchanan) May 2, 2019
Some green groups applauded Thursday's vote. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called the bill "an important opportunity for every member of Congress to affirm on the record that the U.S. must be a leader in addressing the climate crisis."
Others argued that it did not go far enough.
"The latest science is clear: In order to adequately address deepening climate chaos, we must transition completely to clean, renewable energy generation in little more than a decade," Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said ahead of the vote. "The terms of the Paris accord aren't low-hanging fruit, they're fruit that has fallen to the ground and begun to rot."
Today the House of Representatives will vote on a bill to require the U.S. to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. This is nowhere near the action we need.— Food & Water Watch (@foodandwater) May 2, 2019
Our statement: https://t.co/yPUo9PH6R6 #ClimateActionNow pic.twitter.com/SsP4hs2TMd
Scientists have said that if all the world's countries met their pledges under the Paris agreement, it would not be enough to prevent a dangerous rise in temperature, The New York Times reported.
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has championed a more ambitious Green New Deal that would transition the U.S. to net zero emissions within 10 years, said Thursday's act needed to be the precursor to more legislation.
"The idea that we can just reintroduce 2009 policies is not reflective of action that is necessary for now in the world of today," she said.
2009 was the last year that the House passed major climate change legislation, according to The New York Times. That bill would have put a cap on U.S. emissions and let businesses and utilities trade permits to emit, but it failed to advance in the Senate.
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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
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