Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s upcoming visit to the White House presents an important opportunity to advance the global climate agenda while bolstering Rousseff’s struggling presidency and restoring ties with the United States.
In a working visit on June 30, Rousseff and President Obama are expected to discuss climate change and clean energy, among other topics, including trade and defense.
The meeting comes at a time of distance between the Unites States and Brazil. The relationship between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest economies has been cold ever since the National Security Agency scandal in 2013, when Brazil’s president discovered that U.S. agents had been tapping her phones and those of state oil company Petrobras.
At home, Rousseff is facing a very difficult political climate, with the economy faltering and many of her own party members caught up in a massive corruption scandal involving Petrobras and some of the country’s largest construction firms. Some opposition figures are even calling for her impeachment and her approval ratings have dropped to around 13 percent.
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A bilateral climate agreement with the United States could help win Rousseff political support at home by showcasing her leadership on the international stage. A member of the so-called BRICS, Brazil emerged under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a leader of the global South. But that status has waned under Rousseff, who has given less priority to foreign policy.
More importantly, a U.S.-Brazil deal would boost the international climate agenda, which will face a critical juncture at the U.N. negotiations in Paris on Nov. 30. The talks are widely viewed as the last opportunity to finalize a global agreement on emissions cuts to avert dangerous climate change.
Brazil has traditionally been a world leader in clean energy and made impressive steps toward mitigating emissions under Lula. The country has very low per capita CO2 emissions from energy thanks to its heavy reliance on hydropower for electricity generation and biofuels for transportation.
Brazil has also succeeded in dramatically reducing deforestation over the last decade; its carbon emissions nearly halved from a peak of 2.9 billion tons in 2004 to 1.6 billion tons in 2009 as a result of significant reductions in deforestation. However, Brazil’s emissions have risen somewhat since then due mainly to increased fossil fuel consumption.
Although Rousseff has not shown the same commitment to tackling climate change as her predecessor, giving priority to other political and economic development issues, her public statements suggest she understands the importance of global action on climate change. At a panel with leaders of the United States, Mexico and Panama at the Summit of the Americas in April, she said climate change is “a pressing need but also a much-needed area for joint initiatives in the world at large.”
In the United States, the Obama administration is clearly stepping up initiatives to fight climate change ahead of the Paris talks. Recent actions include an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that emissions from airplanes endanger human health because of their contribution to global warming and a regulation proposed last year to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
The United States is also a top clean energy producer — it’s the largest biofuels producer in the world and number two after China in renewable electricity generation. And after Obama met with China’s president Xi Jinping last November, the United States pledged to cut carbon emissions by between 26 percent and 28 percent over 2005 levels by 2025, while China said it would aim for peak emissions by 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuel sources in energy consumption.
As Obama nears the end of his presidency, he clearly views climate change as a key part of his legacy and perhaps an important foreign policy success as his other international initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, appear to be in trouble.
As the U.N. conference approaches, major emitters like the United States and Brazil can show their commitment to climate change mitigation in order to encourage other countries to come forward with ambitious plans. Brazil, as a major developing country, global player and the world’s sixth largest emitter, is particularly important to bridging the international divide over climate change policy.
Lisa Viscidi is the program director for energy, climate change & extractive industries at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.