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Expectations run high as an exuberant Lula speaks at climate summit


Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was swarmed at the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on Wednesday.

By Max Bearak


Long after other world leaders had departed the United Nations climate talks in Egypt, Brazil’s president-elect arrived — and electrified the gathering.


Enthusiasm was palpable in Sharm el Sheikh for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula to most. He recently defeated Jair Bolsonaro, a man Brazilian environmentalists describe as a “nightmare” for presiding over four years of rampant deforestation and lax enforcement of laws in the country’s vast and fragile Amazon rainforest.


Lula addressed the summit’s attendees amid exuberant supporters who serenaded him with a version of the celebratory chant “Ole, ole, ole!” His main message: “Brazil is leaving its cocoon where it was for the last four years.”


“I am here to say to all of you here that Brazil is back in the world,” he said at an event alongside governors of the country’s Amazonian states.


It was Lula’s first trip outside Brazil since winning the presidential election at the end of October, and he basked in the optimism many people here feel now that a defender of an ecosystem that is crucial to the global climate is back in power. This is Lula’s second time as president; he led Brazil from 2003 to 2010. He will take office Jan. 1.


“It’s just a huge, huge relief,” Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist and professor at the University of Brasília, said. “Bolsonaro was a disaster. Climate agenda was completely paralyzed.”


Lula’s appearance at the summit comes as negotiators for nearly every nation in the world try to iron out an agreement on how to implement the pledges most have made to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously heating the planet.


Being invited to the summit before inauguration, Lula said in a speech later Wednesday, was “an acknowledgment that the world is in a rush to see Brazil participating once again in the discussion of the future of the planet and all the human beings that live on it.”


His speech did not contain any major announcements, but it didn’t have to. He declared that he intended to make Brazil a force to combat climate change, drawing sustained applause from the assembled delegates and observers. After his speech, the president-elect was swarmed by well-wishers who wanted to take selfies with him.


Lula’s history of clamping down on deforestation is what gives many of his supporters at the summit high expectations for his next term as president.


When he became president for the first time in 2003, Amazon deforestation was at one of its highest rates ever. By the end of his second term, in 2010, the rate of deforestation had dropped by 67%.


But under Bolsonaro, that trend reversed, and the Amazon lost over 13,000 square miles of tree cover from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Institute of Space Research in Brazil.


Brazil had been set to host the annual U.N. climate summit in 2019, but Bolsonaro refused to go through with it. On Wednesday, Lula proposed holding the 2025 summit in one of Brazil’s Amazonian cities. At his speech, he wore his lucky tie, the same one he wore when Brazil was selected to host the 2016 Olympic Games.


On Tuesday night, Lula met separately with John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, and Xie Zhenhua, Kerry’s Chinese counterpart. The United States is the greatest historic emitter of greenhouse gases, while China is currently the top polluting country in the world. Brazil is among the top 10 biggest emitters, as well as one of the top 10 oil producers.


The United States and European countries have been pressuring the governments of large developing economies like Brazil to reduce their emissions more rapidly. In response, Brazil and others have demanded that industrialized countries help fund the transition of developing nations from fossil fuels to renewable energy.


Climate change, Lula said in his Wednesday speech, was “a problem created disproportionately by the rich countries of the world.”


Lula said wealthy nations like the United States and those in the European Union must deliver on the 2015 pledge they made to give $100 billion annually to developing nations to help them transition to wind, solar and other clean energy. “My comeback is to demand what was promised in 2015,” Lula told the gathering.


In Brazil, Lula faces a political landscape that is far more polarized than it was when he last served as president. The largest bloc in the country’s incoming congress is still controlled by Bolsonaro’s allies.


He will find more resistance from agribusiness, mining interests and others who were allowed to do what they wanted under Bolsonaro,” Bustamante said. “Deforestation has now become much more tied to organized crime in the Amazon region.”


Some of Lula’s fiercest critics are now in the Amazon, where local leaders who have profited from weakened enforcement of environmental laws under Bolsonaro protested his victory.


“It’s a challenging situation but not an impossible one,” said Adriana Abdenur, who runs Plataforma CIPÓ, a Brazilian environmental policy organization. “Revitalizing environmental agencies and providing better funding for enforcement can be done largely without congress.”


Lula pledged to fight against illegal logging and mining in the Amazon “without truce.”


“The mere fact we’ll have a president who doesn’t openly endorse the criminal destruction of the Amazon — you know, a willful expansion of environmental crime — there is surely reason to believe it will have an effect,” Abdenur said. “It will matter.”

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