• iCS - Climate and Society

Interview with Leonardo Lacerda (president of iCS and Oak Foundation)

Updated: Jun 22, 2018

Leonardo Lacerda is president of the Board of iCS and Environmental Programme Director at Oak Foundation, in Geneva, Switzerland. During a one-hour chat with the iCS, he talked about the importance of the civil society in the formulation of public policies that strengthen the vision of a low-carbon economy, in addition to the climate leadership that Brazil can – and should – exercise in the international scenario this century. See the interview below.

In your view, what are the main challenges that Brazil and the world face from a climate perspective, and how can the iCS help to address them?

Leonardo Lacerda: The average temperature on the planet has been increasing very quickly and we have yet to reach peak emission of greenhouse gases, which continues to rise. We already have the bulk of the technology we need to implement the necessary changes, and the price of new technologies has been falling at a surprising pace, mainly in the production of wind and solar power. The challenge, however, is how to accelerate the process of transformation: how do we decarbonize the economy in time to prevent the most catastrophic scenarios of climate change? How to transform a global economy that is still very dependent on coal and oil? In the case of Brazil, a major challenge is how to maintain low deforestation rates and, above all, how to contain the rapid growth of emissions in other sectors that have received little attention, especially the transportation and energy sectors.


Another challenge lies on the inaction due to a lack of vision. We face a is a lack of leadership and inspiring ideas. The Brazilian state has lost the ability to think on the long term. Rather than think about the climate issue simply as a challenge and a cost increase, we have a great opportunity before us: Brazil has every chance to become a leading country in clean development, to conquer markets and to set an example. But the lobbies and cartels in the country have not helped in this process. We have seen in Brazil, for example, that the automotive industry is opposed to urban mobility projects and to the establishment of an efficient rail network. And that large construction companies create obstacles to the adoption of a distributed energy production system, including renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, which create jobs and income, produce energy at peak times, are closer to the Brazilian urban centers and entail lower distribution costs.


The organized civil society and the iCS, which has among its objectives acting as a catalyst for the discussions on how to decarbonize the Brazilian economy, can help overcome this lack of long-term vision. The civil society has proven its ability to do just that: it played a crucial role in the identification of solutions that led to the reduction of deforestation, a major victory for Brazil and for the world.


What did you think of the Brazilian INDC? How about Brazil’s performance in the Paris Agreement? What are the prospects from here forward?

LL: I think civil society has been able to monitor emissions in Brazil more competently than the government itself, which shows its ability to positively influence the Brazilian diplomacy, for example, through the SEEG [Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System].

The fact that the country is among the 10 largest economies on the planet is important. It was the first developing country that had an absolute reduction in its emissions. Where there is leadership, there are results. But in Paris, Brazil relied heavily on the laurels of deforestation. What worries me now is the continuous and rapid growth of Brazil ‘s emissions in sectors of the economy that have to do with a more urbanized society: the energy and transportation sectors.


In a country with so much sun and so much wind, it is pathetic that we should not set an example. If Germany was able to show how to move forward on this issue of energy transformation in a country without sun, Brazil can certainly do better. It is normal for the Germans to pay the cost of innovation, but now, with low prices, there is no reason to continue to wait, we must pursue even faster decarbonizing goals in our economy.


A recent study published in Nature showed that even if all national targets are met, we will still have an increase of 3.1°C by the end of the century. How do you see this situation?

LL: Paris was a diplomatic dance, but most of the commitments are still conservative. After the initial phase, when the parties create mutual trust in the multilateral negotiation system, we can hope that, when the time comes to rethink such goals, the countries will be able to increase their commitments.


The iCS and its partners must exert social pressure to ensure that Brazil leads this process of ratification. I hope that Brazil shows that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was more than simply a carnival and that Brazil proves to be a leader not only in words, but also in actions. The second idea is to ensure the monitoring and implementation of climate action plans undertaken by Brazil, both sector-wide and nation-wide. And the third is to help the various agencies of the federal government, of the states and of the municipalities to achieve actual decarbonizing goals in our economy, bringing together dynamic sectors of the private initiative.


This is a good time for the industry and civil society to rethink the Brazilian development. At this crucial time, when we have to live in a world that restricts the amount of carbon we can release into the atmosphere, the competitive advantages among nations tend to change. The iCS should bring together the various players and facilitate this process of rethinking the Brazilian economy in a world where a clean economy will play a major role. It’s time to reevaluate our comparative and competitive advantages in this context and to reroute job creation and development into more dynamic areas, in such a way as to boost our economy out of our current “middle – income country trap”.


The iCS is part of the ClimateWorks network of organizations, which raises funds and makes grants to climate projects. Describe the value added by such organizations.

LL: First of all, the role of intermediation is very valuable, for several reasons. Despite being an international network, these organizations have been built quite independently, with boards formed by people from each country or region, geared towards national development, who cannot be regarded as representatives of foreign interests or views. This is very important not only to the local political and economic sectors, but also to the grant makers themselves, who know that the proposals reflect a national agenda, with much greater possibility of positive impacts.


The second point is to leverage other resources and to ensure that projects are pursued in a coordinated fashion between various organizations, so that their individual contributions reflect their comparative advantages and the specific niches they occupy and, together, they are able to achieve greater and more ambitious goals.


Another aspect is the ability to work as part of a network, in order to share lessons and technologies. For example, Curitiba has developed an exceptional urban transportation system that has been copied and improved upon in India, China and in several other places. Part of this learning network generates huge possibilities of impact, with the creation of a global movement that pushes countries into committing to stronger targets.


One of the goals of the iCS is to engage national and international philanthropy. What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?

LL: In terms of international philanthropy, the global economic axis is clearly shifting to Asia, and the challenges of poverty and development attract particular interest to Africa. It is very hard to argue that philanthropy should channel resources into Latin America. One of the counter-arguments that I have insisted upon in order to attract other grant makers is the creativity that is present in Latin America. Our region has been able to identify several different responses to global challenges. The modernization of agriculture in the tropics achieved ​​by Embrapa; the satellite deforestation monitoring initiative that was done in the Amazon; the BRT system in Curitiba; and the SEEG [Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System] are some of the many examples of savoir faire developed here, with international repercussions and impacts.


As for Brazilian philanthropy, there is plenty to do. Aside from a few praiseworthy exceptions, the sector thinks small, because it is imprisoned by its own agenda. Philanthropy in Brazil is incipient, but not only due to a lack of money. Each player looks only at its own backyard. Just as rich Brazilians live in sumptuous captivity, I see Brazilian philanthropy living in gated communities, in which each player seeks a local solution to meet the needs of its own corporate marketing or his own personal project. The political situation in the country requires us to rethink how to use resources more efficiently. Two major challenges to which the Brazilian philanthropy is being asked to contribute are clearly to rethink our representative democracy and the new economy. What I feel in Brazil is that the political and economic players are always trying to follow models that have already been designed by others. The great moments in the history of civilization show that leadership arises from the effort to seek new paths, to find a solution where a ready-made one does not exist. Brazilians have this creative ability. We can reinvent the economy and politics; we can imagine the future.


The climate issue lies on the fringes of Brazilian philanthropy. How does this lack of engagement affect the iCS?

LL: There are exceptions that set good examples, such as Instituto Arapyaú, which has had tremendous impact. But somehow these institutions operate in niches. I hope that part of the philanthropy resources could be used to rethink our global insertion into a world that must decarbonize the economy. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games showed the creative face of Brazil, the one that works. How do we translate this creative strength into practical actions that allow us to overcome outdated formulas, for example, of energy production by large hydroelectric plants in the Amazon? How do we change the infrastructures of our cities, which are focused on individual cars instead of multi-modal systems of urban mobility? Or transportation infrastructures that overload roads and favor trucks to the detriment of railways and other cargo transportation modes?


Brazilian NGOs seem to have fared better when they have adopted a more combative standing, but also when they have pointed to viable solutions. We are facing very difficult times, when the Congress is under the rule of the most reactionary sectors of our society, and representative democracy does not seem to work, as it has succumbed to lobbies and interests that are not those of the nation.  Major economic and political decisions create winners and losers. Political decisions are right when, even though private individuals may be losers, the economy and society as a whole are winners.


We must recover our ability to plan and execute, and be able to go against the private interests of certain politicians or economic players. In the specific area of the environment, perhaps a light at the end of this tunnel is the hope brought by the actions of our current Minister, Sarney Filho. He has proven to be someone who understands politics and who knows how to negotiate with other ministries, with the Congress and with the federative states. He had a very fruitful dialogue with civil society during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, and has already invited all parties to an initial conversation, at the dawn of his new term of office.


My hope, therefore, is that in this framework the iCS can help marshal the resources and forces of change to support positive initiatives away from political partisan interests. I hope that the organization can convince Brazilian philanthropy to develop and implement clean, inclusive and fair development scenarios. I am convinced that the iCS has a unique catalytic role and that its Executive Director, Ana Toni, has the leadership ability to ensure that such role is played well.


Does this new openness in the Ministry of the Environment show that civil society can influence public policy?

LL: I hope so, and I go even further. These specific dialogues are valuable, but both the Ministry of the Environment and the civil society must leave the shadows and come into the sun. There is so little money, that one must be as efficient as possible in one’s operations. Let’s bring the main economic players, as well as the most relevant government, civil society and philanthropy players together to think about the energy future of the country, which is the basis of its development. This is a fitting time. Brazil is losing ground. When the country bought the idea of the Olympic Games it was living through a completely euphoric moment of development. That model has since been exhausted and the prospects are now very negative. A clear, creative, innovative and inclusive vision, focused on the common interest of all Brazilians and on the health of the planet is essential to overcome the current crisis.

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