Climate scientists hail Brazil election results as a victory for 'humanity and life itself'

The fate of the Amazon rainforest was on the ballot in Brazil’s presidential election runoff on Sunday, according to climate change experts, and with the narrow victory for former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over President Jair Bolsonaro, they say the Amazon and the planet won.

Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, his wife Rosangela, and Silva's running mate Geraldo Alckmin smile while holding a Brazilian flag amid a crowd of supporters.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva celebrates victory with his wife, Rosangela Silva, and running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, after defeating Jair Bolsonaro, in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday. (Andre Penner/AP)

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest — the vast majority of which is illegal — has skyrocketed, diminishing the capacity for the forest to act as a “carbon sink” that absorbs carbon dioxide and causing a spike in Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, which increased 9.5% in 2020. Lula made halting deforestation a priority in his first term in office, promising to reverse that trend and take other measures to combat climate change. In response to Sunday’s election results, climate experts sounded a sigh of relief.

“It’s f****ing over!” screamed the exuberant statement on the election results from the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a think tank in Brazil. “The nightmare is due to end at last.”

Many in Brazil had feared that deforestation during another Bolsonaro term would irreversibly damage the rainforest, which is home to 25% of the world’s biodiversity.

“During the past four years, the Amazon has been threatened, attacked and destroyed as the government openly promoted environmental crimes,” Erika Berenguer, a researcher at the Ecosystems Lab at the University of Oxford, told the science and technology magazine New Scientist. “It was like having to silence a scream inside you every day as you watched the object of your life, your career and passion destroyed. Lula’s election is a victory not only for the region, but for humanity and life itself.”

Pile of logs among grass and trees, many of which are barren of leaves.
Illegally cut down logs in the forest in Humaita, in Brazil's Amazonas state, on Sept. 17. (Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images)

Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, has defanged the country’s environmental protection agencies in the interest of promoting economic development, whereas Lula, a left-winger, has emphasized the rights of Indigenous people in the Amazon to be protected from deforestation.

“It’s the most important election remaining this year in the world,” Nick Zimmerman, a former White House National Security Council director for Brazil who is now senior adviser for the consulting firm WestExec Advisors, told Yahoo News earlier this month. “Bolsonaro has a terrible track record [on climate change]. Deforestation has again skyrocketed under his presidency.”

“If we take a look at the promises Lula has made, including in his victory speech last night, he was addressing several major problems but also net zero deforestation, protecting Indigenous people’s rights,” Carlos Rittl, Brazil specialist at the Rainforest Foundation, told CNBC on Monday morning.

Brazil is currently the sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it is the fourth-largest cumulative historical emitter when deforestation is included, behind the United States, China and Russia.

Viewed from below a cloudy sky, a red and white factory chimney billows smoke.
A chimney smokes at the Usiminas steel industrial complex in Ipatinga, Brazil, in November 2021. (Nilmar Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

Lula has pledged to revise Brazil’s “nationally determined contribution” to fighting climate change, a key part of global climate diplomacy. As COP27, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, is set to kick off in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 8, Lula’s pledge comes at a time when other nations are being asked to strengthen their commitments to lower emissions.

“A renewed willingness for Brazil to try to take a constructive position and to try to really engage around this issue could be a really tremendous development,” Peter Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, previously told Yahoo News. “That could be a real boost for global deforestation action.”

Bolsonaro, however, has so far refused to concede defeat. An admirer of former President Donald Trump, he may be planning to challenge the election results.