Brazil’s Far-Right Government Is Using COP26 to Greenwash Its Image

Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro is trying to tone down his well-deserved reputation as a climate change denier. But the new proposals from his government serve the same purpose of blocking the radical measures we need to address the climate crisis.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro speaks at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, 2021. (Andressa Anholete / Getty Images)

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil has become known as the world’s biggest renegade when it comes to environmental policy, especially now that Donald Trump has vacated the White House. Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s deforestation rates grew to historical peaks. The Amazon is not the only biome under threat of disappearance in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.

With COP26 happening in Glasgow and so many people expecting tighter commitments to fight climate change, Bolsonaro’s government is promoting a big marketing strategy to position Brazil at the future of the green economy. In view of its previous record, recent pledges to reduce and even stop deforestation may sound like previous lies and half-truths Bolsonaro has told at United Nations meetings.

Yet there is reason to believe that the new Brazilian environment minister, Joaquim Leite, really intends to implement initiatives for preserving native forests. However, this is not because of authentic environmental concerns. Rather, Leite and the corporate interests he is promoting see an opportunity to make new profits and deflect attention from the measures that are really necessary to fight climate change.

Agribusiness and industry associations have sponsored the Brazilian delegation at COP26. This is not unique to Brazil’s far-right government. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) thanks its corporate sponsors directly. Corporate officials are present both in official country pavilions and in the negotiations. The business representatives have many shared priorities, but two stand out: lobbying for a carbon-market approach to tackling climate change and indulging in all of the greenwashing that they can get away with.

Brazilian agribusiness, long denounced by social movements for its destruction of nature and oppression of campesino and indigenous communities, wants a share in this strategy. These corporate players want to save their image and profit from the carbon credit system along the way.

False Solutions and Carbon Capital at COP26

COP26 is a crucial moment for climate politics. The conference has discussed critical issues around the revised climate goals, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that countries have submitted, and about sources of climate finance and commitments toward adaptation and mitigation. At COP15, high-income countries promised $100 billion a year in additional climate finance for low-income countries by 2020. However, they have not delivered on this goal, using development aid budgets and loans instead.

This conference is supposed to deliver the rulebook of the Paris Agreement of 2015. It includes Article 6 on the mechanisms of mitigation, finance, and cooperation. The carbon market mechanism promoted by developed countries and the private sector will enable those actors to comply with emissions limits without reducing production and energy consumption. Instead, they can buy excess credits from developing countries to offset emissions or invest in sustainable development projects, such as conservation and reforestation.

This part of the agreement, including the “technical” issues around reporting, baselines, accreditation, and accountability around “net-zero,” is the most controversial. It weakens the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities among developed and developing countries based on the historical responsibility of industrialized nations. It also transfers the burden of mitigation to people in developing countries that integrate their forests as global carbon sinks. At the time of writing, it is uncertain if parties will agree on Article 6 this year.

In advance of Glasgow, social movements already expected the consolidation of greenwashing mechanisms and “false solutions,” private-sector dominance, and controversy around pending issues of the Paris Agreement, especially regarding Article 6 and the proposed carbon market. While the pandemic is partly to blame for unequal access to the conference, it is also due to the cost of travel, accommodation, and living expenses in the UK; the securitization around the event; and the privileged status of the UNFCCC corporate partners and sponsors. This has made COP26 a low point for democratic participation in the history of climate negotiations.

Activists have compared this year to the disastrous failure of COP15 in Copenhagen. They have come together to denounce the exclusion, inaction, and corporate control in the alternative People’s Summit of the COP26 coalition in Glasgow. On the November 6 Global Day of Action, more than a hundred thousand people marched on the streets of Glasgow, and there were countless demonstrations in other cities and countries.

Corporate science and technology-driven proposals have dominated the space in Glasgow, both physical and discursive, with the main ones being carbon capture, nuclear energy, and nature-based solutions (i.e., forest conservation and tree planting). Nature-based solutions have largely replaced the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) framework. REDD+ emphasized the role of forests as carbon sinks but did not reduce deforestation and often had a negative impact on communities by curtailing their access to land.

Nature-based solutions now include more land and water management activities and seem more appealing to the general public than a complicated acronym. They also strongly appeal to private investors, especially powerful multinational agribusiness firms, allowing them to reach “net-zero” targets through technology, reforestation, and other compensatory mechanisms rather than through reducing emissions along their supply chains.

Fair practices in the pavilion section of the COP’s Blue Zone would mean that country pavilions and private-sector stands were physically, formally, separated. This year, however, corporate dominance strikes the eye as one walks by the Facebook and Bloomberg event spaces next to the areas of the Nordic countries and the UK. Papua New Guinea’s pavilion is plastered with Ernst & Young advertisements. Industry and agribusiness associations sponsor Brazil’s.

On top of this, many banners proudly list the official corporate partners of the COP, from IKEA to Land Rover, praising the green leadership of multinationals. Their media campaigns are trying to obscure the fact that they have opposed and avoided rigid emissions limits and socio-environmental standards along their global supply chains.

In line with the net-zero discourse, under British leadership, COP26 started with a spectacular promotion of forest protection. On the second day of the two-week-long negotiations, more than a hundred national leaders, including those of Brazil, Canada, Russia, Indonesia, the United States, and the UK, signed a forest agreement pledging to halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation 2030.

Brazil’s Dismantle and Rebuild Approach

With the Amazon, which is considered the world’s biggest carbon sink, Brazil has significant leverage in negotiations on forests. Until the coup in 2016 that removed Workers’ Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian negotiation team has rejected the inclusion of forests in carbon markets and the issuance of carbon credits for donors. Instead, the Amazon Fund proposed a national model. But the Michel Temer government that replaced the PT began scrapping environmental regulation and Bolsonaro has carried on down the same path.

​​Bolsonaro’s government has restructured and slashed funding for the bodies that carry out environmental inspections and issue fines or licenses. It has appointed new leaderships at the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio). The government also effectively stopped the demarcation of indigenous lands and the implementation of agrarian reform. The recently signed forest agreement conflicts with Bolsonaro’s plan to allow mining in indigenous areas, yet it fits in with other objectives of his administration.

Corporations have been successfully pushing the Bolsonaro government to present their desired stance on Article 6 at COP26. A large group of business leaders sent a letter urging the government to open up to carbon markets. Since Bolsonaro started his work of environmental deregulation, private companies have scaled up investment in the green and digital revolutions. They have been allocating capital for building waterways and other infrastructure, developing a patent market, and promoting agricultural technologies.

On the surface, the Bolsonaro government may have lost credibility after its disputes with long-time partners such as Norway and Germany, the donors of the Amazon Fund. In addition, there are at least three cases against the Brazilian government at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing it of eco-genocide and encouraging mining and invasion of indigenous territories.

However, Brazil’s recent domestic conservation initiatives are in tune with the international corporate push for carbon markets. Since 2019, the government has implemented several policies to privatize conservation in Brazil.

The “Adopt a Park” program launched in 2021 has enlisted multinationals like Coca-Cola, Carrefour, and Heineken to “adopt” conservation areas and even quilombola territory (communities originally founded by escaped slaves, whose status is recognized under the Brazilian constitution). In a similar fashion, the “Nature Parks Concession Structuring Program” of Brazil’s development bank (BNDES) is directed at private-sector “green” interests. Finally, the most recent Floresta+ program consolidates Brazil’s environmental services market.

These projects connect the previous minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, to his successor, Joaquim Leite. The former was perceived as a climate denialist, whereas the mainstream media has praised the latter as being more moderate, and for his promises of “ambientalismo de resultado” — an environmentalism that delivers. The approaches followed by Salles and Leite are, however, two arms of the same anti-ecological strategy from a government that continues to attack territorial rights and indigenous, traditional, and landless workers’ movements.

Lawmakers from Brazil’s major parties have been discussing a domestic carbon market regulation proposed by congressman Marcelo Ramos from Amazonas state. So far, the left Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) party seems to be the only one that is wholly opposed to this bill and similar ones that will be decided upon in the days and weeks to come.

Brazil’s state governors, especially in the Amazon, also promote forest offsets and have created the consortium Green Brazil to push their agenda within Brazil and at COP. Policymakers and the business community are presenting this as the best way to halt deforestation and compensate for emissions in the energy and agribusiness sector without curbing their expansion.

The government’s privatization agenda directly caters to big business, and it has been accompanied by a dangerous process of militarizing environmental control through presidential decrees, such as the Law and Order Guarantee (GLO), that have increased the power of Brazil’s armed forces. At the same time, the government has tried to shut down resistance from civil society by eliminating bodies such as the Amazon Fund Orientation Committee and by criminalizing social and environmental NGOs and activists.

Green Capitalism Feeds Off Denialism

Fossil capital has promoted and funded climate denialism for many years, in a bid to keep the dirty fuel industry running for as long as possible. But such denialism is not the only strategy available in capitalist economies. As public consciousness about the climate crisis grows, business needs to adapt. Many sectors also understand that climate change presents an investment risk. Asset managers and green fund specialists at COP26 are keen to show that it may no longer suffice merely to look green to please one’s customers.

Whereas climate denialism functions to dismantle environmental policies and to ease the path of particularly destructive operations, the economic strategy of far-right governments such as Bolsonaro’s is dictated first and foremost by market pressures to deregulate while creating new frameworks for profit. In the case of Brazil, this means that higher rates of deforestation go hand in hand with approaches to conservation that reduce forests to carbon stocks and offer agribusiness a chance to profit by selling off credits in the carbon market.

In a situation where people are worried about the future of their forests, to go from no forest at all to commodified forests does not seem like too bad of a deal. At least, this is how the Brazilian mainstream media has promoted it, leading people to believe that the transition from Ricardo Salles to Joaquim Leite was a qualitative one, replacing a hardcore denialist with a pragmatic minister.

It shows the effectiveness of combining climate denialism with green capitalist proposals. Since denialism is so easily shocking, green capitalism can come and save the day with carbon markets and sustainable development funds, and by overstating the power of carbon-capture technologies and blockchain applications. In the end, both amount to two variations on the same underlying strategy, which aims to distract people from the need to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions and restructure society in the process.

This is why our response to denialism cannot end with calls to “believe the science.” While a handful of people may actually believe that climate change is a hoax, those most active in promoting such conspiracy theories have known all about the science for a long time — sometimes longer than most of us. Corporations that formally accept the scientific data are promoting a different kind of denialism: one that rejects the necessary solutions, which would involve dismantling their entire operations.

False solutions work as a convenient remedy for those worried about denialism. They give the impression that negotiations are moving forward and that even governments like Bolsonaro’s can change. The carbon market projects and commodified forests promoted by this far-right government are definitely not what is needed to fight climate change. Such proposals merely allow agribusiness to profit and cultivate a “greener” image after centuries of destruction, dispossession, and murder.

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Claudia Horn is finishing her PhD on climate justice, transnational aid, and Amazon conservation at the London School of Economics. She is based in Belém, Brazil.

Sabrina Fernandes is a Brazilian eco-socialist organizer and communicator with a sociology PhD from Carleton University, Canada. She is a postdoctoral fellow with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the person behind Marxist YouTube channel Tese Onze.

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