At the moment I arrived at the Brazil Climate Summit event, it felt like home to me. As I opened the door to The Forum at Columbia University, I heard dozens of people speaking my language for the first time in 11 days. God, are we loud — and I love it. Entering the bathroom after breakfast, I saw two women brushing their teeth — Brazilians carry a toothbrush in their purse and flee to the office or event bathroom after eating.
You may wonder why Brazil is pursuing this agenda in New York. First of all, because of the UN climate summit — which happens this week. Second, they want to show international investors the power of the country — not only economically but environmentally as well.
According to The World Bank, Brazil holds more than 6 percent of the Amazon rainforest, the largest tropical forest in the world. It also has a high share of renewables in its energy matrix — one of the main topics of the event and also a protest last Sunday in New York. Tens of thousands of activists marched to demand the end of fossil fuels. From their perspective, climate change is primarily caused by coal, oil, and natural gas.
The climate summit is supposed to highlight Brazil’s role in reducing carbon emissions
In fact, one of the objectives of Brazil Summit Climate is to debate initiatives that highlight Brazil’s role in the global race to decarbonize economies. Another highlight is the preparation and legacy that Brazil wants to leave with the presidency of the G20 in 2024 and COP30 in 2025, two years in which the world’s attention will once again turn to the country.
But to understand why this is so important to Brazil right now, we need to go back in time to understand the context of what we are talking about. Under former President Jair Bolsonaro, climate change agendas were not only left aside — but almost scrapped. The government cut 93 percent of investments on studies and projects to mitigate and adapt to climate change in its first three years of management, compared to the previous three years, according to BBC News Brazil.
A survey carried out by researchers from INPE (National Institute for Space Research) showed that in the first two years of the former president’s term, the cutting and burning of the forest released 122 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the average recorded between 2010 and 2018.
These are just two examples that demonstrate the size of the destruction to the environment between 2019 and 2022 in Brazil. But in 2023, Bolsonaro is out of power, and the mood has become more optimistic.
As the conference started, I sat next to Lisa Phillips, head of institutional partnerships at the Columbia Climate School: the university’s first new school in 30 years, seeking to study climate change worldwide.
I emphasized the importance of programs like the climate school, especially in countries like the United States, and she confided that 40 percent of the students are international (including Brazilians). We ended the conversation sharing the same doubts about how Brazil will deal with climate issues after new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office earlier this year.
Practically all speakers made a point of mentioning the importance of having a government that looks at climate change and invests in actions such as the zero-carbon target. Arminio Fraga, former president of the Central Bank of Brazil, for example, stressed that when people talk about Brazil internationally, they are talking about the Amazon. In recent years, that’s been mostly negative: illegal mining or illegal fire are the most common subjects.
“Now, we are in a good leading position,” Fraga said after the departure of Bolsonaro. During the UN climate summit this week, the new president announced that Brazil will recommit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 48 percent by 2025.
The perspective of those who work with the government, like Natalie Unterstell, president of Instituto Talanoa, is that there is not much tension. “For sure, there are divergent law projects, but, in general, it is something unique, which unifies several fronts and various benches [of parliamentarians]. So, I think it will be good work for our Congress to, for the first time, adopt a market-based instrument for conduct policy,” she commented.
She ended her speech amidst a round of applause from the audience, summing up what she wants: “So [we need] more conservation jobs, more investment, and less stupid policy decisions.”
The Brazilian government’s policies have changed for the better
Catarina Vidotto, who is earning a master’s degree in sustainability from Columbia and is responsible for BCS content, says she feels that Brazil’s image has improved lately.
“I feel that Brazilians talk a lot about Brazil, but there is little dialogue among Latin Americans. The political change has shifted the conversation quite a bit. The previous government did not focus on deforestation; on the contrary, their agenda created a lot of insecurity. Now, there is a little more security, at least in terms of taking the issue seriously. Therefore, it is possible to talk about things and take the conversation to a deeper level about the future and stability, among others,” she emphasizes.
There are approximately 50 volunteers who work almost year-round to bring the Brazil Climate Summit to New York. Meeting with them over lunch, they told me the turkey sandwiches and salmon were tastier than last year’s fare — although, as a vegetarian, I didn’t have many options. They experienced the usual hiccups with the summit’s online component: someone had a problem with Zoom, which alternated between one screen, several screens, no screens, and an eternal vortex of them opening atop each other without end.
But it wasn’t enough to take the shine off a new part of the summit: the Startup Challenge, which honored projects related to green energy, waste management and recycling, sustainable constructions, and other climate-focused fields. The project, carried out for the first time, had three Brazilians in the top three places: DeepESG, a consultancy for the management of carbon emissions; Trashin, which deals with the topic of waste management; and Umgrauemeio, which provides forest fire monitoring solution that is also applicable in the Brazilian Pantanal.
At the end of the day, when talking to Osmar Bambini, co-founder and CIO of Umgrauemeio, the big winner, I had the feeling that technology can indeed change the world — even if I knew the reality was more complicated. The company carried out the Embrace Pantanal project, one of the largest projects in the world in environmental preservation, through the rapid identification of fires. For this, the startup has a platform called Pantera.
“It is an integrated platform that has three pillars against fires: prevention, detection, and response. This is the triad for any risk mitigation. We have prevention modules in which we offer daily risk alerts (analyze whether in an area, for example, it is okay starting a tractor or not, as a spark can be fatal),” concluded Bambini.
Next year, the event organizers expect more international investors to understand Brazil’s climate policies better. That connection is especially important because the G20 Summit 2024 will take place in Brazil. The summit is expanding its focus on sustainability — and Brazil’s climate advocates hope the country will rise to the challenge.