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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, and Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, center, walk with other dignitaries after posing for a group photo at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 1, 2023. © AP Photo 2023/Kamran Jebreili

President Lula shocked many people attending the annual United Nations climate conference, COP 28, on December 2 by announcing that Brazil plans to join the OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations as an observer. A few days later, the Climate Action Network of nongovernmental organizations awarded Brazil its mock “Fossil of the Day” award for countries "doing their best to be the worst" to advance meaningful action at the climate negotiations.

While Lula recognized that “the planet needs to work towards an economy less dependent on fossil fuels” and joined efforts to increase renewable energy capacity and efficiency, he failed to use his position at the world’s premier climate conference to take the critical step necessary to become a climate leader: joining the global movement to seriously phase out fossil fuels.

Expectations for President Lula were high at the COP28. Since coming to office on January 1st, Lula has promised to turn Brazil into a world leader on climate – and he arrived in Dubai for the conference with critical results to boast about after years of damaging policies under his predecessor.

His government has successfully decelerated deforestation in the Amazon rainforest with the promise of bringing it to zero by 2030. It improved Brazil’s climate targets with a pledge to cut emissions by 48 percent by 2025 and 53 percent by 2030, aiming to reach climate neutrality by 2050. The government has made additional efforts to create an alliance for the world’s tropical forests and push for a forest fund that would reward nations for forest conservation.

President Lula has emphasized Brazil’s commitment to a clean and renewable energy transition and repeated the importance of the global commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

But Brazil’s continued commitment to expand oil and gas production at home will undermine these important actions.

Fossil fuels are the primary driver of the climate crisis. There is a growing consensus, including from the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that for governments to meet global climate targets there cannot be new oil, gas, or coal development. There is also growing agreement that existing fossil fuel projects are already more than the climate can withstand if we want to prevent the worst outcomes of climate breakdown.

Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras recently announced its plan to increase investment by 31 percent to achieve production of 3.2 million barrels of oil and gas equivalent per day in five years. Petrobras is also at the center of a controversial attempt to initiate offshore oil exploration near the mouth of the Amazon River, a proposal that the Lula administration still has under consideration. The government’s mixed signs so far raise questions on whether its environmental ambitions or oil interests will prevail.

In the corridors of COP28, Indigenous leaders told us the prospect of this enterprise is already luring outsiders to the region and raising concerns over environmental and social harm to the local Indigenous communities.

They are right to worry. All stages of fossil fuel use – exploration, extraction, production, storage, transport, refining, combustion, and disposal – can be linked to human rights harm. The effects of both climate change and such human rights harm are disproportionately borne by marginalized communities, which have contributed little to the crisis and have the least ability to confront it.

In Dubai, governments finally acknowledged the need to transition away from fossil fuels but fell short of making a strong phase-out commitment. To lead by example, as President Lula said wants to do, he shouldn’t wait until next year’s negotiations. It’s time to take bolder action back at home and make a clear and time-bound commitment to phase out fossil fuels as the main driver of climate change. This is key to upholding human rights obligations and to protecting Brazil’s people and the global climate.


*A version of this article was published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo.

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