Brazil to rich countries: Pay up, or the rainforest gets it

In the run-up to the big Copenhagen Climate Talks next week, the battle lines are already being drawn as the developed world and developing world square off over who should bear the burdens of slashing carbon output in order to halt the growth of greenhouse gases. Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega flatly told the BBC on its Business Daily podcast that if the West wants Brazilian farmers to stop their deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, the rich world will have to compensate his nation for its idled agricultural capacity.

The logic behind this argument is somewhat clear. Brazil and the other developing nations claim they are too poor to sacrifice local economic development to accommodate global needs. Further, the logic goes, the West and the developed world did most of the damage to the environment by pumping out greenhouse gases during two centuries of breakneck industrial growth. Now, the developing world says, the West needs to realize that it must pay for the lifestyle its hot-shower-taking, SUV-driving citizens consider to be their birthright.All of this makes sense. But it made a lot more sense five years ago. In the cold, hard light of geopolitics, a strong argument can be made that the developing world should and can pay for its own share of carbon mitigation. For starters, lets look at the economics. While the U.S. may be the largest economy in the world today, it's hardly the richest. China, Brazil, and Russia actually have far less national debt per capita. And these nations accumulated so much cash during the natural-resources boom that ran from early 2005 through 2007 that the tables have effectively been turned.

Those three countries, which will probably form an axis of resistance to Western demands in Copenhagen, are able to afford programs the West could only dream of. Brazil is planning huge anti-poverty initiatives and is rapidly upgrading its infrastructure. China is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into its transportation infrastructure and clean-energy development. Russia, flush with petrodollars, is rapidly retooling its military in order to wield not just oil barrels but also gun barrels.

Then there is the fact that China, Brazil and Russia will probably suffer far more from global warming than will the West. China, with its huge, encroaching deserts and severely limited water supply, already faces an agricultural crisis as the pool of arable land available to feed its burgeoning populace continues to shrink. Meanwhile, Chinese demand is rising for delicacies like beef and pork, which are far more resource-, water-, and land-intensive to produce than the staples of its previous diet. In Brazil, where temperatures are already high in much of the country, global warming could cause significant agricultural problems. By contrast, in most Western nations, where harsh winters are a fact of life, warmer weather will likely help farmers.

This argument is sadly Machiavellian. Then again, global politics is hardly devoid of such games. Economists know full well that China, by keeping the yuan artificially low, has caused massive imbalances in currency flows and economic growth patterns. The cheap yuan, likewise, has made it much easier for China to sell its goods overseas and pocket the cash. Russia has shown it has no qualms about holding Europe hostage in its natural gas pricing dispute with Ukraine. And Brazil, which is probably the most benign of the lot, has been a regular in trade disputes before the World Trade Organization and has been regularly accused of protectionist trade policies for "strategic" industries. (To be fair, Brazil says the same about the West.)

More to the point, flat declarations that one side or the other will have to "pay" in order for any progress to occur is beyond destructive. So is pointing fingers. The West started this mess, but we all are in it now and if current trends continue, the developing world will soon be a far worse offender in terms of global emissions. So perhaps Brazil can get some sort of compensation for saving the Amazon Rainforest -- from China and Russia.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at
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