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Is China Still Committed to UN Climate Process?

Climate

In a major blow to the United Nation's upcoming climate change summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to pull out earlier this week.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pulled out of the UN climate summit in NYC, Sept. 23.

That's according to a Bloomberg article which cites two UN diplomats.

After initially confirming his place, together with U.S. president Barack Obama only two months ago, Xi may now send another top level Chinese delegate to the Sept. 23 gathering instead. It is unclear why Xi himself will not attend.

But, according to a spokesperson from the Beijing government, the change is not necessarily indicative of China's weakening stance on fighting climate change.

The move comes a few weeks after Indian prime minister Narendra Modi decided to snub the gathering.

The news will certainly dash the hopes of UN head Ban Ki-moon who has especially organized this summit in order to build momentum ahead of all important climate talks in Paris next December.

In 2015, world leaders are expected to strike a new deal to rein in emissions, and prevent the catastrophic warming of our planet.

And, although the absence of both Modi and Xi will certainly be felt at this summit, it may not necessarily scupper the negotiation process: the meeting is only a gathering, not a negotiating session.

Striking a solid binding deal couldn't be more pressing.

According to a draft of the UN's latest climate report:

"Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

Using stronger language than the previous three reports, it also warns that the "risk of abrupt and irreversible changes" is increasing, overwhelming current political efforts to contain the crisis.

That brutal assessment came eleven months after the Nobel Peace prize winning body revealed that our planet is warming much faster than expected. Temperatures may now breach the two degrees Celsius mark within the next thirty years.

In April, the head of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim said that warming temperatures will usher in conflicts over food and water within the next five to ten years.

"Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice," warned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and China pledged to lead the charge against global warming. As the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, commitment by these two economic powerhouses is paramount.

Barack Obama has since taken the largest step of any U.S. president to date by reining in emissions from America's vast fleet of power stations.

And, China has now declared a war on pollution as it maintains its lead in the clean energy race.

According to many observers, the U.S. China relationship is one of the most promising developments in nearly twenty years of failed climate talks.

And, although recent news regarding the Chinese president has lead some people to question China's commitment to the UN process, it is important to remember that Beijing and Washington have been working very closely together over the past year to tackle this issue.

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Toxic air pollution across the world's most populous nation has forced the Chinese leadership to clean up its act, regardless of outside pressure.

After sacrificing the environment for decades to achieve breakneck economic growth, Beijing is now making its fight against pollution one of its key objectives to ensure social stability.

Earlier this year, China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua assured: "We should be confident that the Paris meeting will not be another Copenhagen."

In the past, a lack of cooperation between China and the U.S. has sabotaged UN climate talks, including a much hoped for deal in Denmark five years ago. Negotiations collapsed as rich and poor nations clashed over who should bear the brunt of emission cuts.

According to developing countries, industrialized nations should have stepped up to the plate as they are historically responsible for the problem. But, developed economies argued that emerging nations like China and India can not shirk their responsibilities as they now create a huge proportion of today's greenhouse gases.

And, mature economies like the U.S. and Japan will not make their cuts binding unless major polluters like China does too.

"It is an open question whether the world is ready to sign up to something that is adequate in Paris next year," noted EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard earlier this year.

Just over a year before that crucial summit begins in Paris, world leaders need to bear in mind one thing. Five years ago, they vowed to limit the warming of our planet to two degrees celsius.

And, in order to keep that promise, according to a recent roadmap presented to the UN, "global net emissions of greenhouse gases will have to approach zero by the second half of this century."

According to the report compiled by experts from 30 international institutions, current emission targets are simply way too conservative: "By and large, national targets are not derived from an assessment of what will be needed to stay within the 2C limit."

It says that in order to meet that target, the world's 15 largest economies will all have to take ambitious strides to move towards a low carbon economy.

That list includes: the U.S., China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Australia, the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

Speaking ahead of this month's UN summit, Ban Ki-Moon said:

"Solutions exist and we are already seeing significant changes in government policies. The race is on, and now is the time for leaders to step up and steer the world towards a safer future."

With a steep temperature rise sitting on our collective horizon, let's hope that world leaders find that will before heading to Paris next December, for as Martin Luther King once said: "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." And, while the task ahead is certainly challenging, in the words of the late Nelson Mandela: "It always seems impossible until its done."

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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.

Thaís Borges.

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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