Sunday, November 08, 2009

Brazil is going backwards to Copenhagen

There is nothing more urgent in the world than a meaningful settlement at the talks on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

The perspective here in Brazil is that it would seem to be on the right side of the battle to save the planet's climate. In fact, the truth is a bit more murky.

38% of Brazil's energy is from renewable sources; of the rest, 60% is fossil fuel at 1% nuclear. According to the International Energy Agency this puts the country on one of the lowest per capita carbon dioxide emissions (111th in the world) and certainly one of the lowest in terms of unit of gross domestic product. However it is the world's 17th biggest greenhouse gas emitter (UN figures) because of the fires used to clear land for pasture in the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil has pioneered the world in the production of ethanol from sugarcane and mandated that biofuels are blended with petroleum to fuel cars with 20-25% of ethanol and most cars bought in Brazil can run on either ethanol or this blend. Renewables account for 45%. It produces a large amount of hydroelectric power, which itself has been blamed for displacing indigenous people, but the number of droughts is increasing. As a result Brazil is actually going backwards.

To compensate it is using more and more gas, oil and coal and is planning to build five more nuclear power stations. This is in a country which is blessed with a huge amount of solar power. According to the United Nations Environment Programme's data set most other industrialised and populated areas of the country receive an average of 4-5.5 kWh/m2/day, with some receiving much more, making it an ideal place for solar water heating and photovoltaic power. As most of the rain and the hydroelectric power is in the north west of the country far away from these areas there will be much fewer transmission and distribution costs associated with the use of solar power.

Brazil also has a huge potential capacity - 100Mt/yr - to use biochar to fertilise the soil and lock carbon from the growth of sugarcane back into the soil as a fertiliser. This after all is where biochar was first discovered -- in the Amazon. (source: Perera, K.K.C.K. et. al., 29 Biomass & Bioenergy 199, 204 (2005).)

But is Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva doing this? No, instead he is increasing state control over huge newly-discovered offshore oil reserves. Brazil is sitting on reserves bigger than any discovered in the Americas since 1976. He is following his friend Chavez in Venezuela by netting the government company Petroleo Brasileiro take control of these so-called 'Pre-Salt" reserves. This may help Brazil more than double oil production and turn the state-controlled company into one of the world’s biggest producers, according to Adriano Pires, head of the Brazilian Center for Infrastructure.

The pre-salt Tupi field alone holds an estimated 5 billion to 8 billion barrels of oil equivalent but it is over 200 miles off the coast and beneath over 7,000 meters of water, rock and a thick layer of salt. Companies are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of getting at this oil, but it will itself cost a huge amount of energy and environmental damage to retrieve it.

Brazil wants to develop and the revenue would be the engine of funding its infrastructure - and of course the corruption in the government that everybody here talks about.

In fact while I am here Lula has been in London trying to seek investment in his country, which he says will be the fifth largest economy in the world by 2019. The huge emerging middle class is greatly expanding its energy consumption as everyone wants the same standard of living as the developed world.

Ironically, accompanying Lula on his London trip is Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of what is supposed to be the greenest city in the world or at least of the developing world, Curitiba. I hope to go there in just over a week myself to see if the miracle that is proclaimed to have happened there is true. Lerner has been showing Boris Johnson, London's mayor, what the possibilities are.

It would be better if Lula were to leave the oil in the ground beneath the sea and to roll out throughout the whole of Brazil the types of reforms that have happened in Curitiba.

He should also halt deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 20% of it has already gone. In 2000-2005 deforestation in the Amazon, which is shared by eight countries, denuded an area nearly the size of Venezuela. Less well-known is deforestation in the Cerado biomass, which Environment Minister Carlos Minc says generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as Amazonian deforestation.

Lula has promised to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020. But the government is under pressure to release more land to the farmers, and was widely criticised in June when Lula legalised in the stealing of 60,000,000 ha of Amazon rainforest by farmers that had been taken illegally.

However some states are going it alone, just as they are in North America. Here in São Paulo a month ago it became the first Brazilian state to approve a statewide climate change policy that calls for a 20% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. The head of the São Paulo Forum on climate change and biodiversity, Fabio Feldmann, has criticised Lula for his exploration programme of the pre-Salt oil reservoirs.

Brazil is going to Copenhagen with a flawed plan and an unclean conscience. Mind you, so is everybody else.

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