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Brazilian agribusiness can change its image with carbon-neutral production

This article was originally published in Portuguese in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.


We have already warmed the planet’s surface by about 1°C, and the challenges are not small for development trajectories that meet the Paris Agreement goals of keeping warming below 2°C—ideally not warmer than 1.5°C.

Impacts are already felt everywhere. In less than 30 days, 4 hurricanes in the Caribbean—Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria—reached categories 4 and 5, a fact unprecedented in history and directly associated with ocean warming, and caused enormous devastation.

That alone would have been enough to make Trump's government rush back to the Paris Agreement, if it were a government that cared about people's well-being.

To stabilize climate change, the necessary social, economic and technological transformations will mean a major break from the current development model: the almost complete decarbonization of the global economy, keeping almost all the not-yet-explored coal, oil, and natural gas buried forever, including most of Brazil’s pre-salt oil reserves.

In Brazil, organized agribusiness has been repeating the "sustainable intensification" discourse for years, but directly or indirectly livestock and agriculture account for almost 70% of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

The Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Research Agency (Embrapa) has been developing technologies for carbon-neutral agriculture and predicts that it will be possible to reach such a stage by 2030. In addition to achieving leadership in sustainable pathways, carbon-neutral agriculture could bring economic benefits and contribute to forest restoration.

The adoption of technologies that increase productivity and, at the same time, reduce emissions requires profound changes within Brazilian agribusiness.

We need to stop the uncontrolled advance of the commodities frontier in Cerrado tropical savanna and Amazon forest biomes—as we still see year after year—, but with the restraint starting from the agribusiness sector itself in an articulated and organized way, and not only by command and control actions by the environmental agencies.

Even if agribusiness embraces the necessary transformation as intent, it will still have to face the paradox of Jevons, known as boomerang effect: increasing efficiency causes demand to increase. William S. Jevons in the 19th century realized that the use of coal in the Industrial Revolution was magnified with improved efficiency due to the attraction of capital to the most profitable activity.

The same happened with productivity increases of palm plantations in Southeast Asia and of dairy cattle in Rondônia: both caused increased deforestation—Rondônia is the most deforested state of the Brazilian Amazon.

In other words, the seeds of an expansionist agricultural sector are still present in the Brazilian economy, supported by the economic weight that the sector represents, in the current phase when Brazilian economy goes back to being mostly an economy of primary commodities.

It is concluded that it is the sector itself that should lead the reformulation of its strategies, creating codes of ethics in defense of a zero-deforestation agricultural policy in which production growth is only due to productivity gains.

If so, it would gain world leadership and respect, which would be positive for the country's image.

We live in uncertain times, where the vast majority of the population aspires to a just and democratic country, and a minority embedded in political representation clings to power.

The vast majority of the population is against deforestation and wants to combat climate change. The rural sector congressional caucus pushes for the approval of laws that, if approved, will accelerate the loss of ecosystems and increase the emission of greenhouse gases, contrary to the aspirations of the Brazilian population.

The hour of truth is approaching, and we must reaffirm as a country the commitments made before the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Those who get ahead in the race for a sustainable planet will be the leaders pointing the way to other countries and a source of pride for their people.

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