Brazil’s Carbon Challenge

Tim Hirsch

Brazil's Carbon Challenge

Brazil's carbon footprint comes mainly from land uses, not energy.


At the opening ceremony of last year's international climate conference in Pozna´n, Poland, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Brazil for having built "one of the greenest economies in the world." South America's largest country uses renewable energy on a scale (nearly half of total energy consumption) that other major economies can only dream about.

And yet, according to the World Resources Institute, Brazil was the world's fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2005 (the most recent data year). Its own government's energy plan, published earlier this year, envisages a tripling of emissions from the country's electricity-generating sector over the next 10 years.

These apparently contradictory facts can be explained by three essential elements that give Brazil a unique profile in tackling the global climate challenge: hydropower, sugar-based ethanol, and, most of all, deforestation in the Amazon.

The big picture of Brazil's climate change contribution is this: historic decisions, based not on climate concerns but on factors such as resource availability and the wish for energy independence, led the country to a relatively low dependency on fossil fuels. Hydroelectric dams dominate the supply of electricity (accounting for some 90 percent of domestically generated power), and Brazilian sugarcane estates have been powering vehicles for 30 years. Unlike every other top emitter, energy plays a relatively small role in Brazil's official greenhouse gas account.