Brazil's Lula sets out 'net zero deforestation' aim in election bid

An aerial view shows a dead tree near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina

An aerial view shows a dead tree near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil July 28, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

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Restoring forests could create green jobs - but protecting existing forest is crucial, analysts say

  • 'Net zero deforestation' plan would focus on forest restoration
  • Aim would be to reach goal within four-year term in office
  • Plan could generate jobs - but not big carbon reductions

RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil's former president and front-runner in October elections, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, would seek "net zero deforestation" in the country if elected, a political plan published Tuesday said.

The document outlines Lula's plans for office and has about 120 directives for a future government, including a strong focus on lifting Brazilians from poverty and preserving the environment.

"Our commitment is to the relentless fight against illegal deforestation and the promotion of net zero deforestation," it said, noting "net zero" deforestation plans would include restoration of degraded areas.

Widescale restoration efforts could potentially be a significant generator of jobs in poor regions of the country, analysts said.

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Polling released earlier this month ahead of scheduled October 2 elections showed the leftist former president with a 16-point lead over current right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation rates in the Amazon have surged as the president, who has close ties to the country's powerful agricultural industry, backs farm and ranching expansion in the region.

Political observers say Lula, who ruled from 2003-2010, has a realistic chance at becoming Brazil's president again - and is using environmental policies as a way to differentiate himself from the incumbent president.

More forest, less carbon?

Whether Brazil could reach "net zero" deforestation within a Lula four-year presidential term depends on what the candidate means by the phrase, analysts said.

Usually, such a term signifies that for every hectare of forest lost another would be restored. But new-grown forest has far lower value in terms of absorbing climate-polluting carbon dioxide or harboring wildlife than older forests lost, they said.

That means protecting existing forest is far more crucial than planting new forest.

A newly restored area could "take 100 years to reach this (same) tonnage of carbon", noted Ane Alencar, science director for the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam), a non-profit.

To reach true "net zero" in both forest losses and carbon emissions in four years, Brazil would need a "revolution", Alencar said.

At last year's COP26 U.N. climate change negotiations in Glasgow, Bolsonaro promised Brazil would reach zero illegal deforestation by 2028, despite soaring deforestation rates during his term in office.

Brazil needs to focus on "zero" deforestation rather than just "net zero", said Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, executive director of SOS Mata Atlantica, a environmental non-profit.

"All science makes it very clear that the issue is getting to zero ... not net zero, either legal or illegal," said Pinto.

But Lula's commitment signals an abrupt shift from the policies of Bolsonaro, who has been widely criticized for dismantling Brazil's environmental policies and weakening the main government bodies that fought deforestation.

If Lula does reach office, "the government's starting point is going to be terrible. We are inheriting a tragedy," Pinto said.

Focus on jobs

To reach "net zero" deforestation, Brazil would have to scale up its efforts to restore forests across the country while also fighting deforestation, said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian non-profit.

The aim, Astrini believes, would be to lower deforestation as much as possible and then compensate remaining losses using restoration.

A large-scale restoration push could also be used to deliver one of Lula's other big campaign promises: green jobs.

"On average, to restore a thousand hectares ... you generate approximately 400 jobs" in things such as growing and planting seeds and seedlings and monitoring regrowth, said Ludmila Pugliesi, a restoration manager at Conservation International Brazil.

Restoration efforts might focus on private land, she said. Brazilian law requires farmers to retain a share of their land as forest but many have not and could now be required to pay for restoration.

"We understand that restoration is not a silver bullet - but (it) can play a part in an economic recovery," Pugliesi said.

The lack of detail about "net zero" deforestation and jobs in the new political plan is not by accident, said Astrini, who met with Lula's representatives four times as it was developed, twice with Lula himself present.

"The specifics of the implementation, of what will be done when, and how, is (to come) only after the elections," Astrini said.

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