Interview: Alfredo Sirkis
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
Alfredo Sirkis has a huge challenge ahead of him. As the Executive Secretary of the Fórum Brasileiro de Mudanças Climáticas (Brazilian Forum on Climate Change – FBMC) and director of the think tank Centro Brasil no Clima, an iCS grantee, he is responsible for articulating sectors of society (public, private and civil society) to ensure that Brazil is on track to achieve the fulfillment of the targets listed in the country’s NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution), under the Paris Agreement.
This exclusive interview addresses his plans for the FBMC and discusses how the current national political scenario influences the decision-making process.
iCS: Sirkis, the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change is a gathering space for society and State players. What are your priority goals and roles?
Alfredo Sirkis: This year we will address some immediate issues like the resurging of deforestation, but our main task is to develop two or three scenarios – negotiated in advance with these society and State players and technically rigorous – for the implementation of the Brazilian NDC.
I plan to conclude this process in October, before COP 23, in Bonn. For 2018, the goal is to complete the first review cycle of our NDC – I believe we can get below 1 Gt [of CO2e] in 2030 – and to chart the beginning of a long-term strategy for the drastic decarbonization of Brazil in the second half of the century. There is also a range of tasks we must fulfill in order to adapt to the inevitable.
iCS: What are your expectations for this development of scenarios until Bonn?
AS: Two or three scenarios should be contemplated as ways to bring the NDC out of the paper and into reality, always with a concern to consider poetry, not prose. That is to say: the 1.3 Gt level will be in effect in 2025 and the 1.2 Gt level will be in effect in 2030 (until the revision, of course). The paths we need to take to get there may vary. We may not need to abide by that discursive part of INDC down to the letter, as that part has some inaccuracies and inconsistencies. The important thing is the result and we need to draw some alternative paths.
We need to move forward in terms of economic instruments, which is something that the NDC does not address at length, but that is absolutely essential. For example, economic instruments have already appeared in the Mitigation Options modeling, made for the MCTI and coordinated by Professor Roberto Schaeffer, of COPPE/UFRJ. It indicates that, in Brazil, if the price of a ton of carbon were set in the range of 10 to 20 U.S. dollars, it would have significant effects in encouraging the adoption of decarbonization solutions.
What is most important is to dramatically reduce deforestation by 2020 – to below 4,000 km2– and to implement a (neutral) tax reform, taxing carbon and offsetting it against a reduction in other taxes. This would send a signal to the economy as a whole.
iCS: In 2009, the Forum was recognized as one of the instruments of the National Policy on Climate Change. How is the relationship between the Forum and the other instances of this Policy?
AS: We are talking non-stop with different areas of the government, the private sector, the academia and the third sector. There is a difference between dialoguing and defining a set position. In the government, we had a situation in which each area was firing off in a different direction. Last week the GEx (the Executive Group on Climate Change) met for the first time since 2015. It gets to be kind of funny, but we are mediating tensions between ministries …
My main effort now is to bring into this dialogue those areas which, by nature or circumstance, had been left out of the discussion: the Civil Household, the Ministries of Agriculture, Development and Industry, Finance, Defense, etc. We have achieved a good presence in the second and third levels of government. Everywhere there are officers who have understood the risk and opportunity.
iCS: The Forum consists of nine Thematic Chambers, aimed at establishing actions to comply with the Brazilian NDC. What are they, how are they formed, and which ones have already started to operate?
AS: Actually, there are ten: one represents an adaptation, which was adopted instead of my initial idea to have a sub-forum. Such change was made following formal considerations from the Civil Household staff.
They are: 1) Forestry and Agriculture; 2) Power (electricity); 3) Transport & Mobility (includes fossil fuels and biofuels); 4) Industry; 5) Cities and Waste; 6) Finance; 7) Technology and Innovation; 8) Defense; 9) Long-term Vision (also makes the final report on the NDC scenarios); and 10) Adaptation.
The ones that are already in operation are: Forestry and Agriculture, which actually has 3 workgroups; Power and Long-term Vision. The following thematic chambers will be operational by the end of this week: Finance, Cities and Waste and Industry. In May: Innovation, Adaptation and Defense (the military want to wait for the enactment of the new decree, which includes the Ministry of Defense) will come into operation.
We have intense and important involvement of people from the government, the third sector, the academia and the private sector.
iCS: In a recent interview to Observatório do Clima, you noted that President Temer, despite not having deep knowledge, sees this matter as an important issue. In these initial months as the FBMC’s executive secretary, did you perception remain unchanged?
AS: Look, with this crisis, with all that’s going on, I don’t expect he should be thinking too much about it … I met him only once since the delivery of the ratification of the Paris Agreement, in New York. He met the requests I made.
The government is very contradictory and is subject to constant conflicts, especially between the MMA (the Ministry of the Environment) and the parliamentary basis it needs to implement reform. It’s a very complicated situation. I need to squeeze water from a stone. But what’s the alternative?
The extreme weakness of the government also exposes it to pressure from the other side. This struggle is not easy in any corner of the world, except perhaps in some Nordic countries.
When I see the difficulties we have here, I think of the situation in the U.S. …
iCS: What do you have to say about the matter of Climate governance of in Brazil, and about the political clashes between the different Ministries when this issue comes under discussion?
AS: The clashes are not so much among the ministries, but rather among the MMA and segments of the parliamentary basis. See: the strategic interests of the modern sector of Brazilian agriculture are very poorly represented in Congress. The issues that receive the most attention over there are certain local interests, which are small but well-articulated politically. They’re outdated cattle raisers, timber merchants or rice farmers who have localized interests, explicitly dealing with specific protected areas or indigenous land.
These groups actually manage to weave a considerable parliamentary lobby and, in the Congress, there is also that Pavlovian hostility that some deputies and senators have against environmentalism in general and against everything that smacks of it.
We have to fight this situation with skill, without hysteria. In the case of climate change, there are strong points of convergence with the more serious entrepreneurs in every industry, including the rural sector. They will certainly be victims of the climatic catastrophe and those who are minimally informed already know this. But we have to have the ability of knowing how to dialogue.
For my part, I can sit down with the devil and try to convince him that he needs to reduce his emissions – otherwise, in the future, not even he will be able to live in hell’s heat. (This is a figure of speech of course, because sulfur dioxide, SO2, is not a greenhouse gas …)
iCS: Does Brazil have the potential to fulfill its NDC, or even to surpass it? What are the main ways to achieve this goal?
AS: Yes the country can achieve that. The NDC was based on the assumption of a growth of the average GDP of 3% per year by 2030 (which will not happen) and on a methodology to carry out inventory emissions that, although supported by the IPCC, it is objectively lenient.
I am sure that if we have both “real” (for tax purposes) and positive (economic value minus carbon) economic pricing mechanisms and sub-national markets, such as the seven that there are in China and the one in California, Brazil will not only fulfill its NDC but also be able to contribute, in the future, to a carbon neutral world.
It is necessary to incorporate climatic and environmental negative externalities to the prices, taxing carbon – between ten and twenty US dollars a ton – and to reward additional and anticipated reductions with a “climate currency”, which can only be used to acquire services, products and technology that will lead to additional reductions/removals, thus creating a virtuous cycle.
In any case, we need to get started right away with a drastic reduction in deforestation, which is, by far, relatively easier and cheaper.
iCS: In a scenario of 1.5°C by 2100, how to address the issue of negative emissions and at what stage are Brazil and the world in with regard to this matter?
AS: Well, let’s wait and see what the IPCC has to say about the 1.5°C. Can it be achieved without some form of geoengineering? I don’t know. I’m waiting for an answer from the scientists, but I think we need to have this as the horizon. We have to bet on the exponential.
If there is one country in the world that can produce negative emissions, this country is Brazil!
Currently this country is immersed in a devastating economic crisis and we cannot see where the investments to climb out of it will come from, since there will be no public investment anytime soon and internal interest rates are very high. We need to attract international savings, which exist in profusion. Strategically, we have great comparative advantage precisely because of this immense decarbonization potential. But in the short term, any investor who reads the newspaper, accesses the Internet or watches TV will see a country falling apart and will avoid the risk.
iCS: Could you tell us a little about the work of Centro Brasil no Clima and the relevance of a think tank and of the adoption of strategies geared to climate change?
AS: We are a Think Tank (and a Do Tank, too). Over the two years since our institution, we have managed to pass Paragraph 108 of the Paris Decision, which may be a revolution in low-carbon economy when the mechanisms for its implementation are created and low-carbon becomes the climate currency. It is worth explaining that 196 governments have recognized that low-carbon (the “voluntary mitigation actions”) has a social, economic and environmental value. The NDCs are voluntary, so you assign price to carbon reduction/removal and this paves the way for payment in exchange for mitigation actions, under criteria yet to be established.
We did good work in supporting the ratification of the Paris Agreement with the Ratify Now! Campaign. We are no longer a climate or environmental NGO. Instead, we have become a meeting point for all climate or environmental NGOs. So much so that we are guided by strategic meetings, which are attended by some of the major Brazilian climate leaders, among whom we seek to build a consensus. We speak widely at the national and international levels. I think that our most important feature is our ability to have wide-reaching access.
We also pursue climate leadership training work, together with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and organize demonstrations.
iCS: What is your opinion on the role of the iCS in FBMC, in particular, and in supporting projects related to climate, politics and economics in general?
AT: It is the iCS that enables all of this, our work, the work of Observatório and the work of some of the most advanced sectors of the academia, who perform vital studies.
Without this support, things would be much harder than they already are.
iCS: Finally, a bit about the field of philanthropy, which is still incipient in Brazil, in the universe of climate change. How do you assess the importance of philanthropy in achieving the goals of the Brazilian NDC?
AS: As you said yourself, in Brazil this tradition is not well developed, but global philanthropy will help to improve this attitude. I see a new generation emerge that pursues different values.
In the medium term, I am an optimistic. In the short term, we will still go through lots of trouble, but this is life.