‘Country of promises’: Brazil’s struggle to lead climate policy at COP28

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is slated to helm Brazil’s largest-ever delegation, but he faces criticism at home.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva raises his two hands to form the shape of a heart. He wears a white collared shirt in this close-up photo.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has positioned Brazil as a world leader in the fight against climate change [File: Andre Penner/AP Photo]

Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Even before he took office last January, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to position his country as a world leader in the battle against climate change.

He arrived at the United Nations Climate Change Conference last year to cheers and supporters chanting his name. “Brazil is back,” he told enthusiastic audiences, declaring the fight against climate change “the highest profile” issue of his administration.

One year later, Lula is returning on Friday to the annual climate conference, known in its latest edition as COP28. But critics question whether he has lived up to the sweeping promises he made on the world stage, particularly as Brazil continues to grow its oil and natural gas sectors.

“Lula da Silva’s Brazil can’t be at once a climate leader and the world’s fourth oil exporter,” Suely Araújo, a public policy specialist at the environmental NGO Observatório do Clima, told Al Jazeera.

Still, with world leaders like United States President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping notably absent from COP28, Lula aims to send the message that Brazil can marshal efforts to tackle climate policy — and fill the leadership vacuum.

“We arrive at COP28 with our heads held high,” Ana Toni, the climate change secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, said during a November 8 news conference.

A panel table sits along the length of a stage in Dubai, behind which officials sit. The background of the stage is a green screen with logos and slogans like "Dubai 2023," "United Nations Climate Change" and "COP28 UAE."
The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, known this year as COP28, opened on November 30 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates [Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

A show of strength

Brazil’s government has already announced that the country plans to send the largest delegation in its history to the event, composed of an estimated 2,400 registered participants.

Most hail from civil society or business organisations, but at least 400 are expected to be government officials, including high-level cabinet ministers.

The show of strength at COP28 strikes a contrast with the more sparse attendance under Lula’s predecessor, former President Jair Bolsonaro.

The right-wing leader, a climate sceptic, was a repeated no-show at the annual climate conferences, and upon taking office, he revoked Brazil’s offer to host one of the events.

Bolsonaro also drew criticism for overseeing record levels of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, where destruction hit a 12-year high in 2020. Approximately 218.4sq kilometres (84.3sq miles) of forest cover were razed in his final month in office alone.

Deforestation has slowed under Lula, dropping 20 percent since his inauguration, according to government statistics. Earlier this year, he announced an “ecological transition plan” that would invest in green energy goals, and he has set 2030 as the deadline for ending Amazon deforestation.

“Lula da Silva’s government has already achieved important advances in terms of rebuilding Brazil’s environmental policies,” Araújo said. “The climate agenda has had a central place [in his administration] since his presidential campaign.”

Brazilian President Lula da Silva walks alongside a military official, as a service member in a blue shirt and another person wait to escort him onto a helicopter. The swooping architecture of the Alvorada palace in Brasilia is visible behind them.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, left, boards an Air Force helicopter in Brasilia, Brazil, on November 27 as he prepares to visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar before arriving at COP28 [File: Adriano Machado/Reuters]

A need for domestic support

But critics have blasted Lula for not going far enough — and for failing to bring key stakeholders into his climate change agenda.

“We’re still living in the country of promises, not of effectiveness,” said Dinamam Tuxá, executive coordinator for the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), an Indigenous rights coalition.

Lula is expected to use the COP28 conference to push world leaders for greater commitments to protecting rainforests like the Amazon, which are pivotal for moderating climate change.

But Tuxá fears Lula’s proposals are empty words without more political support at home.

Brazil’s Congress skews conservative, with Bolsonaro’s party holding the most seats of any single group in the lower chamber. This, Tuxá explained, has stymied Lula’s goals of bolstering Brazil’s economic policies and advancing Indigenous rights.

“We are seeing a beautiful discourse and maybe even political will, but there’s no governability,” Tuxá said.

Indigenous leader Puyr Tembe, wearing a crown of radiating feathers, sits on a United Nations Climate Change panel with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who is dressed in a blue suit. A TV screen broadcasts their remarks above them.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, second from right, joins Indigenous leaders like Puyr Tembe, second from left, on a panel at the 2022 COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt [File: Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

More than half of Brazil’s 1.7 million Indigenous people live in the Amazon, making them key partners in the fight for environmental protection.

But earlier this year, Brazil’s Congress voted to restrict the powers of federal agencies dedicated to Indigenous peoples and the environment. And in October, Lula partially vetoed legislation to limit what would qualify as Indigenous land, sparking criticism for not having rejected the entire bill.

“We understand this is a coalition government, but unfortunately, this has made it hard to approve public policies for Indigenous people,” Tuxá explained.

Other groups likewise decried a feeling of marginalisation in Lula’s climate policy.

Tâmara Terso, a member of the Black Voices for Climate network, said her group would attend COP28 to speak out against environmental racism in Brazil, a term used to describe how communities of colour face disproportionate impacts from climate change.

She criticised Lula’s government for failing to include a race-conscious perspective in its environmental plans.

“Even though we have reached a point of dialogue, there are still obstacles in taking part in the decision-making process,” she said. “This is the message we’re bringing to COP28.”

A pair of hands reaches down to rearrange stacks of brochures on a table. Some are labeled "ocean," "water" and "food."
Representatives from governments, businesses and civil society groups attend the opening day of the COP28 conference on November 30 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates [Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo]

‘Greenwashing’ at COP28

Other advocates, meanwhile, have questioned the messages that powerful interest groups are broadcasting at COP28. Cinthia Leone, a press officer for the Brazilian nonprofit ClimaInfo, noted the increasing presence of businesses at the conference.

She fears the climate change events could turn into public relations platforms for industries with little interest in lowering their carbon output.

“Companies have learned from civil society that they have to be present at COPs,” Leone said.

“When they arrive, they come on strong, with a lot of money and robust marketing strategies. That ends up turning the event into a big fair where companies set their stands to sell their greenwashing and false solutions.”

The accusation of “greenwashing” — or peddling a misleading environmental track record — is one that Lula himself faces in advance of COP28.

Nicole Oliveira, executive director of the Arayara International Institute, an NGO, pointed to what she considered contradictions in Lula’s rhetoric and his administration’s actions.

The day after COP28 closes, on December 13, Oliveira said Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency is slated to auction off hundreds of “blocks” of territory for oil exploration.

“The blocks up for auction coincide with preserved areas, including some on top of the Noronha seamounts, recognised worldwide for their role in marine biodiversity maintenance,” Oliveira said. “We never expected such an auction to take place under this government.”

She also criticised an announcement from the Ministry of Mines and Energy that indicated Lula’s administration aimed to make Brazil the fourth-largest oil exporter in the world.

“At this point in the climate crisis, we should be walking through a different path, not burning more fossil fuels,” Oliveira said.

Source: Al Jazeera