‘We Are Bigger Than Our Problems’

Three takeaways from the 2022 Brazil Climate Summit held at Columbia Business School’s Manhattanville campus

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, president and co-founder of Igarapé, speaks at a panel on climate justice at the 2022 Brazil Climate Summit held at Columbia Business School.
Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, left, president and co-founder of Igarapé, speaks at a panel on climate justice at the 2022 Brazil Climate Summit held at Columbia Business School.
Social Impact
Katie Gilbert

When it comes to climate news related to Brazil in recent years, international headlines have tended to emphasize the country’s losses (like deforestation in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest), its deficits (lately, in climate-protecting laws), and its warnings (for example, in research about insect decline).

Over a year ago, a group of Columbia Business School students, alumni, and prominent Brazilian leaders across sectors decided it was time to challenge that predominantly negative narrative. They set out to organize an event that could help establish a new narrative—one that is far more complex, hopeful, and solution oriented.

Their efforts culminated in the Brazil Climate Summit, a two-day event on Columbia’s Manhattanville Campus in September that brought together nearly 70 diverse speakers for 16 panels across two days, with 550 live attendees—more than half of them from Brazil—and over 4,000 livestream viewers.

The summit included panels on technology and disruption, policy changes and incentives to achieve net zero, climate justice, and the potential of the carbon credit economy.

The Brazil Climate Summit was intentionally scheduled just a week before Climate Week NYC, to bring a unified vision of Brazil’s future as a climate leader into the proceedings, explains Luciana Antonini Ribeiro, founder of EB Capital, CBS alumna, and member of the summit advisory board.

“We know our problems, and we are bigger than our problems,” says Marina Cançado, co-CEO of Future Carbon Group and a lead organizer of the summit. Cançado adds that she believes the international community ignores at its own peril Brazil’s potential as a climate solutions hub: “The world won’t reach net zero without Brazil.”

Of course, Brazil also stands to benefit from positioning itself as a leader in the global transition to net zero. According to Boston Consulting Group’s Brazil Climate Report 2022, which was created exclusively for the Brazil Climate Summit, Brazil stands to attract between $2 trillion and $3 trillion in investments related to the green transition by 2050.

Cançado acknowledged as much: “The green agenda is the driver for Brazil’s economic development from now on.”

BCG’s report highlights Brazil’s potential to lead, specifically in exporting ideas and products related to regenerative agriculture, nature-based solutions (NbS), green hydrogen, and industrial goods like low-carbon steel and low-carbon cement.

At the Brazil Climate Summit, experts from business, academia, science, and climate activism delved into each of these areas of potential, discussing their promise, their challenges, and the necessary work ahead.

The discussions frequently returned to three key themes about Brazil’s role in helping the world’s economies decarbonize:

1. Brazil is poised to become a leader in clean energy.

As BCG’s report states, Brazil’s power grid is already relatively clean, at 85 percent renewable compared with about 26 percent in the rest of the world. Bruce Usher, CBS professor and co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, said this could set the stage for Brazil to develop a booming green hydrogen industry.

Green hydrogen has exciting potential as a clean power alternative for manufacturing, transportation, and more—though one challenge is the energy intensity necessary to separate hydrogen from the other elements that occur with it. Hydrogen is green only if it’s produced via electrolysis of water using renewable power—which produces no greenhouse gas pollution.

“You need cheap clean energy to create green hydrogen,” Usher explained. “Brazil has that and will have more in the future.”

Usher highlighted another potentially explosive green energy industry where Brazil has clear advantages: sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. Through its production of ethanol, Brazil is the world’s leader in biofuels, which positions the country to be a leader in SAF. While the SAF industry requires more research and investment to be competitive, he said, it’s a clear opportunity for the future.

2. No country has more potential in NbS than Brazil.

More than one-third of the greenhouse gas mitigation necessary by 2030 is expected to come from “cost-effective nature-based solutions,” according to the BCG report, which notes that Brazil is the country that holds the most potential when it comes to climate change mitigation via these solutions.

The term nature-based solutions (NbS) refers to the use of natural processes to help manage and protect ecosystems, communities, and the planet. NbS examples include green roofs in cities and coastal habitat restoration, though, as the BCG report points out, most of the world’s NbS potential comes from forests and their natural carbon sequestration powers. Brazil is home to the largest tropical forest on the planet, the report adds, making it “the No. 1 nation in NbS mitigation potential,” with about 10 percent of the world’s available NbS opportunities.

And that figure may even minimize Brazil’s role in the space, since solutions in agriculture and forest protection developed in Brazil could be exported all over the world.

In addition to their promise in addressing climate change, these solutions represent a potentially lucrative growth area for climate-focused entrepreneurs, since the carbon savings realized through NbS can theoretically be monetized via, for example, carbon markets. “Carbon credits put an economic value on leaving trees standing instead of cutting them down,” explained Usher. The challenge, he added, is that we don’t have a global carbon market today—and he acknowledged that he has grave concerns about when, or if, we ever will.

3. Brazil can—and should—become a norm setter in global standards and policies, especially for carbon markets.

In no small part because of its distinction as a leader in the emerging NbS space, Brazil deserves a prominent role in discussions about the formation of global standards and policies that dictate how carbon markets are designed, argued many at the summit.

“[Brazilians] can become the ones shaping these future norms and regulations,” said Natalie Unterstell, head of policy think tank Talanoa Institute. “I think we have to lead in proposing the new generation of public policies that are going to be aligned to the Paris Agreement and are going to respond to how we should treat nature based around our own assets.”

Experts at the summit noted that though it’s early days, the carbon credit market in Brazil could reach as much as $100 billion by 2030.

Cançado said Future Carbon plans to launch a carbon credits course with Columbia Climate School and Columbia Global Center. “Our issue, really, is how do the many pioneers in Brazil coalesce and be constructive in building this new set of norms that the world can adopt?” added Unterstell.

Keynote speaker Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, agreed that there is an urgent need to collaborate and find answers to this and other questions related to climate change. He pointed to a hopeful model he believes is now on the rise, including in Brazil: company leaders coming together—with other business leaders, representatives from municipalities, NGOs, and more—to address systemic issues contributing to climate change. It’s a trend he writes about in his new book, Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take.

“The real leaders of tomorrow understand that you have to move from competitive leadership to cooperative leadership,” said Polman. “I always make it clear that when the future of humanity is at stake, we shouldn’t compete.”

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