Brazil: Sustainable Development and Climate Change
In the UN “Year of Sustainability for All”, Brazil will host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development from June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio+20 campaign for “The Future We Want” marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit also held in Rio. This conference will address climate change and the challenges of reconciling development and sustainability.
Rio has a large number of research and development institutes, two of Brazil’s biggest energy companies – Petrobras and Vale – as well as major oil companies. Not too far from this thriving urban habitat is the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world. Rio is therefore an ideal location to highlight the need to bring big energy business on board the campaign to address our most pressing environmental concerns.
As one of the world’s fastest growing economies and the most biodiverse country, Brazil has around 195 million inhabitants, 87% of which live in coastal urban areas. The Amazon rainforest is the largest green lung or “carbon sinkhole” on Earth. Mining, cattle herding and agriculture, have been Brazil’s largest economic boosters, but have entailed devastating deforestation of the Amazon. The challenge is for Brazil to develop sustainably while protecting its environment.
This double challenge derives from the two separate notions related to global climate change politics: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation reduces emissions and helps manage the causes of pollution which already exist. Adaptation promotes actions to tolerate the effects of climate change. Both concepts must be addressed in Brazil since its energy use has increased by 66% since 1992 and its CO2 emissions by 78%. Brazilian energy production and consumption needs to include renewable sources and employ the best available technology for its development to continue sustainably.
In 2006, 45% of Brazil’s energy production came from renewable sources; hydropower accounted for 85% of domestic electricity supply. The World Bank special report on Brazil’s efforts on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions states that energy generation accounts for less than a quarter of total emissions in Brazil, while more than three quarters came from issues surrounding land use and agriculture.
Contrary to the developed-country logic of emissions reduction, Brazil’s most pressing problem is not energy production but deforestation. Climate change is driven to a great extent by the accumulation of greenhouse gases that are exacerbated by annual emissions. Since CO2 remains in the atmosphere for an average of 100 years, forest protection methods are necessary to absorb and convert the carbon back into oxygen. Brazil’s annual reduction of forested areas – the “carbon sinkholes”– becomes a larger contributor to climate change than its increase in emissions. The Amazon rainforest now occupies approximately 80% of its original area and is continuously decreasing.
The main reasons for deforestation in Brazil include clearing land for farming and construction of infrastructure. Since the 1960s, large parts of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared to make way for cattle ranches and the production of soybeans. Due to economic factors, Brazilian beef became very competitive in the world market in the early 1970s, which encouraged the clearing of more land for larger ranches. The country is also the world’s largest exporter of bioethanol, produced from sugarcane, and the second largest producer of soybeans after the United States.
Large infrastructure projects add to the problem of making land arable for agriculture and herding. Inaugurated in 1972, the Trans-Amazonian Highway had a tremendous negative impact on the environment. Energy projects with good intentions also have been met with widespread criticism. For example, a 1990 study of Brazil’s Curua-Una Dam showed that it ultimately pollutes the atmosphere 3.5 times more than an oil-fired power plant.
The Belo Monte Dam is a proposed hydro-electric facility on the Amazon River. If built, it would become the world’s third largest dam producing 11 Gigawatts (GW) at maximum capacity and should contribute to Brazil’s development of clean energy. However, construction would clear 668 m2 of rainforest, not including transmission lines. It will also cause the flooding of 400 km2 in the surrounding area, indirectly resulting in the release of 112 million tons of CO2 and methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
Climate change poses immense risks to the unique biodiversity of Brazil’s environment. Rainfall patterns will be disrupted as a result of alterations in weather conditions. North-eastern Brazil has suffered from severe droughts, and the possibility that fewer water resources would threaten agriculture in the region. With food production in stagnation, Brazil’s exports will suffer. Less rain also means that essential hydropower installations will not be able to maintain clean energy production. If this scenario continues, the future scarcity for food, water and energy will be overwhelming.
Threats to the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetlands concern local ecologists and global environmental groups. An increase in atmospheric temperature would lead to the rainforest becoming dryer, resulting in a loss of biodiversity and an increase in potential forest fires. This would release large amounts of greenhouse gases and contribute to the destruction of one of the world’s largest carbon sinkholes. Irrevocably, temperatures would continue to rise.
The official stance of the Brazilian government in climate change negotiations is that annual greenhouse gas emissions should not be taken as the only measure for a country’s responsibility. As a rapidly developing country, Brazil has no historic accountability to the current climate threat and has refused to accept binding emissions reduction targets before 2050, when it believes that developing nations will have come to a level playing field with developed states. China and India also support this position.
Brazil supports emissions targets for states which do have an historic responsibility to the causes of climate change. Brazilian negotiators have advocated repeatedly for an extension to the Kyoto Protocol, which commits 37 “developed nations” (Annex I countries) to a reduction of major greenhouse gases. Since the Protocol’s aim is to achieve a “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, this provides a convenient fit for Brazil’s pressing environmental concerns: to address deforestation domestically while industrialized countries commit to cutting emissions internationally.
Brazil has been a strong proponent for sustainability. At the 2011 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (CoP) 17 in Durban, South Africa, Dr. Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s Minister for Environment, stated that “Brazil has been taking a forward position in order to promote the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases and at the same time to develop sustainably”. This statement reveals the dual challenge Brazil and other emerging economies now face.
Countries classified as “non-developed nations” (non-Annex I countries), which include Brazil, India and China, have no other choice but to develop sustainably. Brazil is at the forefront of combating climate change, and has the added difficulty of having to fight deforestation as well. According to the 2009 World Resources Institute, 79% of Brazil’s total CO2 emissions in 2005 came from land use and land use change, such as deforestation and agriculture, while energy production accounted for only 17%. Official pledges are to reduce the negative effects of land use by more than 60%, to sustain the effects of agriculture at the same levels, and allow for an approximate increase of 100% in the energy sector. In combination with other factors, this should bring about a 36-39% decrease in total emissions.
Brazil’s ambitious goals are to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80%, introduce sustainable farming techniques, improve energy efficiency and develop renewable energy sources. Efforts are underway to enforce laws on illegal logging and on land licensing; the results have been debatable. Brazilian environmentalists remain positive about national initiatives. Greenpeace has stated that the government’s acceptance of emission reduction targets is a major step forward. Many groups still criticize the lack of transparency in the development of these targets and how emissions are measured. One solution may be to include these in an international agreement, such as the extended Kyoto Protocol, which would allow for international monitoring and verification.
In Rio de Janeiro in June, these concrete problems will be mentioned. According to the draft document to be accepted, world leaders will reaffirm their resolution to “work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet”. As Brazil’s President, Dima Rouseff, welcomes her colleagues to Rio+20 for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, she will reaffirm her support for the ongoing process. Rio+20 will be an arena for climate politics to be played out behind the promotion of sustainability. An international, legally-binding accord will not be signed, but more commitments will be made to sustainable development. Brazil’s nature, city and vibrant life should inspire governments to take swifter action in implementing plans for innovation and greener growth.
Lubomir Mitev is an Analyst for Climate and Energy at Revolve Magazine. This article is an introduction to Revolve’s summer supplement on sustainability in Brazil.