“Brazil is back to make its due contribution in facing the major global challenges…The international community is immersed in a whirlwind of multiple and simultaneous crises. The Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and food and energy insecurity have been amplified by growing geopolitical tensions. If we had to summarize these challenges in a single word, it would be inequality.” —Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at the September 2023 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)
In the last year, Brazil has launched a diplomatic offensive to position itself as a leader in global governance, especially climate. Amid deepening cleavages between the world’s most advanced economies and the Global South, Brazil defends multilateralism and dialogue with historically Western-dominated international institutions while highlighting the grievances of the poorest countries. Within Brazil’s emerging global agenda, Africa is deemed a priority. As world leaders gather to meet at the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP) in Dubai, a potential diplomatic alignment between Africa and Brazil—including at future COPs—jointly insisting on major reforms in the international order is worth evaluating.
In this article, the authors discuss an emerging alliance between Brazil and Africa and assess its prospects for changing global climate and environmental politics. They argue that Brazil’s outreach to Africa stems from the “solidarity diplomacy” and leftist internationalism that Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) government have long espoused, while also reflecting more Realpolitik and mercantilist objectives.
Brazil is about to assume the presidency of the G20, which brings together the world’s most powerful states that account for about 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. With other founding members, Brazil welcomed six new emerging economies into the BRICS club in 2023 while receiving Chinese support for a Brazilian permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Furthermore, in August 2023, it convened a summit of eight countries sharing stewardship of the Amazon that articulated the goal of ending deforestation and associated emissions by 2030 while offering local communities meaningful inclusion in economic development. Brasília has also issued its first $2 billion sustainable sovereign bond issuance to test global investor appetite for its environmental plans, receiving an enthusiastic response. And in 2025, Brazil will host the climate negotiations of COP30 in the Amazonian city of Belém.
During his remarks at UNGA, Lula was the sole leader of a world power who devoted significant attention to Africa. The Brazilian president referenced more than half a dozen African countries and the crises they are facing. His speech closely mirrored long-standing African Union talking points about Africa’s lack of representation inside the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the debt crisis squeezing the world’s poorest, and the extreme weather events intensified by climate change on the continent least responsible for it, such as the recent floods in Libya.
Whereas his climate skeptic predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, did not travel to the continent, Lula has visited more African countries (four) than Asian ones since returning to office, having established 19 embassies in Africa during his two initial presidential terms (2003–2010). In addition to supporting African priorities such as compensation for the loss and damage wrought by global warming, Brasília is also proposing an international alliance to protect the earth’s most valuable terrestrial carbon sinks, its equatorial rainforests. It, therefore, exceptionally also invited countries from outside the region, Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville, to its 2023 regional Amazon summit, underlining the prominent role of African partners in its diplomatic agenda.
Brazil’s quest to be recognized as a leader of the Global South on climate and other dossiers is integral to its hopes of claiming a permanent seat on the Security Council. Brazilian diplomatic influence with Africa may help to showcase its ability to be useful to Washington, Brussels, and Beijing—not just in its own region but as a global interlocutor. This is important because Brazilian claims to leadership in South America have frequently enjoyed an ambiguous, sometimes frosty, reception from its neighbors.
Moreover, Africa has become Brazil’s fourth-largest commercial partner, with trade topping US$20 billion annually in 2022. Brazil runs a significant trade surplus with the continent by virtue of its agro-industrial prowess; its main exports are sugar and molasses, corn, and fuel oils. It has pursued ambitious energy deals, from hydropower in Tanzania to promoting biofuel production in Malawi, Mozambique, and Sudan to notorious “oil-for-infrastructure” contracts and loans in Angola. Commercial opportunities in Africa are valuable in light of Brazil’s past decade of muted economic growth, high unemployment, and mounting food insecurity.
African responses to Brazilian overtures have been mixed so far. On the one hand, Brazil’s “solidarity diplomacy,” its emphasis on inequality as causing environmental problems, and its rejection of seeing global politics—including climate, trade, and technology—through the lens of a new cold war between West and East are well-received across the continent. At the UNGA, echoing Lula, Presidents Nana Akufo-Addo (Ghana), João Lourenço (Angola), and Julius Maada Bio (Sierra Leone) all emphasized the imperative of peaceful, sustainable development by strengthening the UN and the multilateral system through bold institutional reforms.
Moreover, Lula’s rhetoric dovetails with the priorities outlined in the Declaration of Nairobi, signed at the 2023 Africa Climate Summit, including timely debt relief, a more inclusive global financial architecture “fit for purpose,” and greater cooperation between Global South partners around technology and nature-based solutions, to foster low-carbon development.
Nevertheless, on the other hand, Brazil must contend with a considerable array of African skeptics, given its recent record on the continent. Most Brazilian investments in the 2000s aimed at promoting biofuels cooperation fizzled out in disappointment as they underestimated the importance of understanding the political and economic contexts in which they operate. In Angola and Sudan, Brazilian firms found themselves accused of colluding with corrupt and authoritarian local partners. Furthermore, while Brasília was keen to promote sugarcane-based ethanol—based on decades of scientific and technological knowhow in its enterprises and state institutions—in the seemingly ideal agro-climatic conditions of African savannahs, partners in Mozambique and elsewhere found local environmental conditions much less suited to Brazilian proposals, which they also considered to sometimes be at odds with food security priorities. In Tanzania, only one out of the eight dam projects, initiated between 2005 and 2017, was completed. A misreading of local politics and inconsistent diplomatic and financial support by Brazilian governmental and private sector actors sank much of the goodwill that had been generated during Lula’s first presidential terms.
Moreover, to many Africans, it is not all that clear what Brazil can actually bring to the table that would make a material difference to Africa’s most pressing climate action challenges, especially, debt overhang, the underfinancing of climate adaptation projects, and managing water scarcity. Brasília is not in a position to extend significant credit lines to indebted African states, lacks meaningful water development cooperation projects in Africa, and has a questionable domestic adaptation track record itself. And the credibility of Brazilian calls to form an “OPEC of rainforests” is undercut by how extensive deforestation, legal and illegal, remains in the Amazon.
None of this is to underestimate the urgency of developing countries coming together to challenge the inequalities built into the existing international order and to craft “transformative narratives” that articulate a more attractive vision of what alternative futures could look like. Particularly promising in that regard is Lula’s emergent discourse around an “ecological or green transition” to a bioeconomy through developing new products and industries based on Brazil’s (and Africa’s) extraordinary ecological diversity.
However, what might matter most to many of Brazil’s prospective partners in Africa are tangible changes in the way cooperation is conducted as part of the new initiatives. Lula has yet to offer significant concrete opportunities to advance sustainable agriculture, energy, and biodiversity protection. One potential ally in doing so could be Brazil’s impressive and globally networked social movements, which have been a central part of major domestic transformations and could build more durable and effective bridges to African stakeholders than traditional forms of development cooperation. Brazil’s ability to lead the Global South and reshape global climate politics depends not only on investments but also on the capacity to comprehend African needs, act as a mediator for shared agendas, and garner trust in places where others fail to look.
 Ana Cristina Alves, “Brazil in Africa: Achievements and Challenges,” in Emerging Powers in Africa (London: London School of Economics, 2013): 37–44.
 Oliver Stuenkel and Marcos Tourinho, “Regulating Intervention: Brazil and the Responsibility to Protect,” Conflict, Security & Development 14, no. 4 (2014): 379–402.
 Sean W. Burges, “Revisiting Consensual Hegemony: Brazilian Regional Leadership in Question,” International Politics 52 (2015): 193–207.
 Mathias Alencastro, “Brazilian Corruption Overseas: The Case of Odebrecht in Angola,” in Robert I. Rotberg (ed.), Corruption in Latin America: How Politicians and Corporations Steal from Citizens (Cham: Springer, 2019) 109–123.
 https://www.makaangola.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/PresidencyCorruption.pdf and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-odebrecht-slavery/brazil-convicts-odebrecht-group-for-slavery-like-practices-in-angola-idUSKCN0R205620150902
 Lyal White, “Emerging Powers in Africa: Is Brazil Any Different?” South African Journal of International Affairs 20(1) (2013): 117–136.
 Stavros Afionis, Lindsay C. Stringer, Nicola Favretto, Julia Tomei, and Marcos S. Buckeridge, “Unpacking Brazil’s Leadership in the Global Biofuels Arena: Brazilian Ethanol Diplomacy in Africa,” Global Environmental Politics 16, no. 3 (2016): 127–150.
 Barnaby Joseph Dye, “What Holds Back Dam Building? The Role of Brazil in the Stagnation of Dams in Tanzania,” FutureDAMS Working Paper 006 (2019), University of Manchester, https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/192077/1/futuredams_working_paper_006_dye.pdf.
 https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/publications/africa-s-call-climate-change-adaption-heeding-warnings-ipcc-report-advance-cop26-qa-dr-harry/ and Harry Verhoeven, “Climate & Water in a Changing Africa: Uncertainty, Adaptation & the Social Construction of Fragile Environments.” Dædalus 150, no. 4 (2021): 260–277.
 Maria Carmen Lemos, Yun-Jia Lo, Donald R. Nelson, Hallie Eakin, and Ana Maria Bedran-Martins, “Linking Development to Climate Adaptation: Leveraging Generic and Specific Capacities to Reduce Vulnerability to Drought in NE Brazil,” Global Environmental Change 39 (2016): 170–179; Carolina Milhorance, Fanny Howland, Eric Sabourin, and Jean-François Le Coq, “Tackling the Implementation Gap of Climate Adaptation Strategies: Understanding Policy Translation in Brazil and Colombia,” Climate Policy 22, no. 9–10 (2022): 1113–1129.
 Jochen Hinkel, Diana Mangalagiu, Alexander Bisaro, and J. David Tàbara, “Transformative Narratives for Climate Action,” Climatic Change 160 (2020): 495–506.
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