Magazine article Newsweek International

Coasting on Past Glory

Magazine article Newsweek International

Coasting on Past Glory

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

The Amazon is still largely intact, but the future hinges on decisions being made now.

Brazil ranks 34th in the green index, ahead of the United States.

From the window of a Boeing, few countries are greener than Brazil. Since much of this vast territory in the heart of South America is still unpeopled and unblemished, it's not surprising that Brazil looks good against the backdrop of a mistreated planet. It ranks 34th of 149 nations in Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index--greener than Ireland (35th) and the United States (39th). But how long will the country be able to hold on to this favorable score?

To get a better look, you have to go to 9,000 meters, the altitude from which the NASA remote-sensing satellites sweep the earth. Every year, scientists at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) pore over satellite images to produce the most detailed survey of deforestation of any nation in the world. Such candor has won Brazil kudos, but also criticism. Brazil is the fourth biggest contributor of greenhouse gases globally, of which 75 percent comes from the felling and burning of forests. So when data released by INPE in late May showed that 5,850 square kilometers of forest (an area larger than Brunei) had disappeared from August 2007 to April 2008--a 17 percent spike from the year before--the planet took notice. "Brazil has a fantastic endowment from nature but is failing when it comes to managing it," says Judicael Clevelario Junior, head of environmental studies at the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the census bureau.

Brazil's green laurels are not an illusion. Four fifths of its electric power comes from hydroelectric plants. It is the world leader in biofuels--nearly 30 percent of its cars run on ethanol. The trouble is that these virtues reflect sound decisions made in the 1970s, during the ambitious military government of Gen. …

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