An Indigenous man of the Kayapo tribe looks at logs left by loggers in Brazil

An Indigenous man observes the results of logging in Brazil’s northern Pará state.Credit: Lucas Landau/Reuters

A pledge to deliver zero deforestation by 2030 was among the promises made by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when he became Brazil’s president — the country’s 39th — for the third time in January. Under his right-wing predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon reached its highest rates since 2006 — more than 13,000 square kilometres were cleared in 2021. And illegal gold mining drove the Indigenous Yanomami people, who live in Roraima and Amazonas states, into a health and humanitarian crisis.

Under Lula, as the current president is widely known, “there has been a sense of urgency for construction and reconstruction of environmental policy,” says Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute, a think tank based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that focuses on monitoring and analysing the country’s climate policy. But Lula, a left-wing politician, has often had to make concessions during his first year in power, because Brazil’s National Congress — the federal legislative body — is controlled by a right-wing majority.

Observers still hope that more attention will be given to environmental issues — but say it’ll be hard to change the direction of travel. In 2023, deforestation in the Amazon is projected to hit about 9,000 square kilometres (see ‘Amazon deforestation’), according to an analysis of satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

A bar chart shows deforestation in Brazil’s ‘Legal Amazon’ territory has varied under the country’s four most recent presidents, peaking during the tenure of Jair Bolsonaro.

Source: INPE TerraBrasilis dashboard, see

In October, Brazil updated the climate-change commitments it had made to the United Nations. In 2016, Brazil had proposed reducing emissions by 37% by 2025 and by 43% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Now, it proposes to cut emissions in 2025 and 2030 by 48% and 51%, respectively.

By contrast, when Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, his government retained the emission cuts proposed in 2016, but worked with a higher estimate of 2005 emissions. Unterstell says the Bolsonaro policy would have resulted in an increase in emissions compared with the original plan. Now, with an updated pledge, the country is getting back on track on this front, she says.

New policies are often ignored by loggers, however, so Brazil’s environment agencies and government must find ways to counter illegal logging rapidly. INPE operates DETER, a deforestation-detection system in real time that relies on observation data from sensors aboard the China–Brazil Earth Resources Satellite CBERS-4 and the Indian IRS-R2 satellite. On the basis of the captured images, INPE sends warnings to Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, to enable quick law-enforcement actions on the ground. DETER is currently used to monitor two of Brazil’s six biomes. As well as the Amazon forest, DETER monitors the Cerrado, a vast and diverse savannah that’s home to the sources of some of the largest rivers in South America, and that lacks many of the legal protections that the Amazon enjoys.

According to DETER, the part of the Cerrado covered by logging alerts is set to hit a record high in 2023 of about 7,600 square kilometres — an estimate that is roughly 1000 square kilometres more than in 2018, when INPE started recording such alerts for the biome. Such an increase shows the need for more-efficient and far-reaching policies to protect the Cerrado, Unterstell says.

Political mismatch

In June, Congress approved a law that campaigners feared would weaken protections for both the environment and Indigenous communities. The legislation took responsibility for rural land registry and wastewater management away from the environment ministry, handing the two areas to other ministries. The law also stripped the Indigenous Peoples ministry of the power to demarcate Indigenous lands, handing it instead to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security.

Pedro Jacobi, an environmental-governance researcher at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, says that Lula has been forced to accept these changes. Rather than risking conflict in Congress, Jacobi says, Lula prefers to focus on key agendas, such as the economy and social programmes. Bolsonaro’s right-wing Liberal Party alone makes up 96 of the 513 representatives in Congress’s lower house after the 2022 elections.

This mismatch between the government and Congress extends especially to Brazil’s energy strategy — in Unterstell’s view, the elephant in the room for environmental policy. Despite having a secretariat for energy transition, the country has no energy-transition policy, she says, and it needs a “fast, full and fair strategy, with a phase-out for fossil fuels, a clear start and finish date, and a plan to achieve it.”

Aerial view of a deforested piece of land in the Amazon rainforest

Rainforest destruction caused by fires in northern Brazil in 2019.Credit: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty

In August, Brazil’s finance ministry launched an ecological transformation plan as part of the country’s growth acceleration programme, known as PAC — a set of policies to boost private and public investment in infrastructure to create jobs and reduce regional inequalities. The plan focuses on green social and economic development, and includes a green energy transition as one of its key planks. But “even though it has an energy component, the plan falls short of a proper energy-transition policy,” says Suely Araújo, senior public-policy specialist at the Climate Observatory, a civil-society coalition of organizations focused on climate-change policy in Rio de Janeiro.

Most of the PAC’s investments for energy transition and security are likely to go to the oil and gas industries. Of the 565.4 billion reais (US$116 billion) allotted to energy transition and security, oil and gas is set to receive 360.2 billion reais. And the bulk of that money — 324 billion reais — is earmarked for the production and development of fossil fuels.

Debates around fossil fuels

According to Brazil’s National Agency for Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels, natural-gas imports fell by almost half in 2022 compared with the previous year. But oil imports increased by almost 70% over the same period, the highest since 2015.

Brazil itself was the world’s ninth-biggest oil producer in 2022 and the eighth-largest consumer of petroleum products. Unterstell welcomes the emergence of a wider discussion about oil and the energy transition in Brazil. “This is a difficult subject we have to face,” she says. “There’s an aggressive policy in place to turn Brazil into the world’s fourth-largest oil producer until the end of this decade. Surely we can’t stop producing oil overnight, as 8 of the country’s 26 states depend heavily on its revenues,” but, with clean energy getting cheaper and the world needing to phase out the production and consumption of oil, this won’t work out in the long run, she says.

Earlier this year, a debate around an environmental licence for an exploratory oil well at the mouth of the Amazonas River sparked tension between governmental organizations. In May, IBAMA rejected the request for a licence, saying the risk assessment by Petrobras, the state-owned multinational petroleum company, had several technical flaws.

The company appealed and now the licence depends on an assessment of the impact the traffic to and from an oil platform will have on communities nearby, to be made by Brazil’s National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (a separate body from the Indigenous Peoples ministry). In early October, the granting of a new environmental licence for Petrobras to explore deep waters close to Rio Grande do Norte state ignited hopes that the same might soon happen at the mouth of the Amazon. In September, the minister of mines and energy, Alexandre Silveira, asked for more speed in the process.

The big picture and ways forward

President Lula’s attitude has been important in signalling a change of direction, said Marina Silva, Brazil’s minister for environment and climate change, in an interview with Nature in September. “He has been saying he wants an entirely clean energy matrix, and this has worked in the sense that Brazil aims to reach zero deforestation in 2030,” Silva said. Brazil has also taken up climate commitments and worked to lead international discussions to steer change, because what happens globally echoes in the country, she added.

The drivers of deforestation and the statistics around it are different in 2023 from what they were in 2003, and the country’s new Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) will face challenges that did not exist to the same extent two decades ago, says Carlos Nobre, president of the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change — a group of experts modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that gathers and assesses scientific information to produce national assessment reports and other documents covering climate-change topics specific to Brazil.

Launched in 2004 during Marina Silva’s first stint as Brazil’s environment minister, PPCDAm oversees surveillance of and prosecutions for environmental crime, as well as the management of public lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Between 2004 and 2012, it succeeded in slashing deforestation in the biome by 83%. In June, the Brazilian government announced an updated version of the programme.

“Organized crime and drug trafficking have exploded in the Amazon, but even so we are seeing deforestation reduction rates comparable to 2005,” Nobre says, when these crimes were not so flagrant. A positive aspect of the revamped PPCDAm, he says, is that “it gives an important emphasis to sustainable development in the Amazon”.

That is crucial for lasting effects, says Unterstell. “If there’s no economic alternative, results won’t be sustainable in the long term, and law enforcement will be flawed,” she says. “Those who are involved in deforestation today must be able to do a fair transition to a viable, forest-preserving economy.”

When Nature asked Silva about Brazil’s seemingly contradictory position on slashing deforestation while investing in fossil fuels, Silva said: “Everyone wants to solve the fossil-fuel problem, but unfortunately humanity cannot do without them yet. China won’t be able to forgo these sources so soon — the same with India. Even the European Union, with all its efforts, is going through a very complex situation in the face of the [Ukraine] war. It’s important we see the big picture.”