Can Brazil create a sustainable, low-carbon economy?
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Can Brazil create a sustainable, low-carbon economy?

As a large developing country with vast ecological wealth and huge potential for both renewable energy and environmental destruction, Brazil is an interesting case study for sustainability and — ultimately — the creation of a low-carbon economy.

Last year Norway praised Brazil’s climate model for its successes in slowing deforestation. Beginning in 2008, the Nordic country awarded the home of a large section of Amazon rainforest with a $1 billion climate fund.

Many factors at play

While it is the world’s 7th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Brazil’s relatively high per capita emissions are offset by the Amazon, which acts as a powerful carbon sink.

As with most large, complex economies, Brazil has powerful forces pushing in both directions: towards an environmentally destructive, polluting future on the one hand and on the other, positive factors such as a strong renewable energy sector and the incomparable resource for carbon absorption and biodiversity that is the Amazon.

Which path towards sustainability will Brazil take and what are its chances for success?

Good news for Brazil’s decarbonization:

Between 2006 and 2011 Brazil lowered its aggregate greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, largely due to policies designed to decrease deforestation.

Brazil already sources the vast majority — 82 percent — of its electricity from renewable sources, mainly hydropower, which powers 77 percent of the national grid. While hydroelectric dam projects are beset by human rights issues, their contribution to a low carbon economy is undeniable.

According to the Brazil’s Renewable Fuels Bulletin, published by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, biodiesel production grew by a whopping 85 percent in 2015. This growth is being fuelled in part by strong exports to the European Union.

In order to serve the growing market for wind energy in Brazil and other parts of Latin America, Danish wind turbine giant Vestas recently opened a factory in the city of Aquiraz, Ceará State, on Brazil’s northeast coast.

Challenges to establishing a low carbon economy

Brazil’s congress is currently debating two laws that would increase legal deforestation. One overturns the prohibition on infrastructures in officially indigenous territories, while the other would make it easier for major infrastructure projects, such as dam and road construction, to receive environmental licensing.

Recent estimates put Amazon deforestation at 5,000 kilometers per year. Discoveries of large offshore petroleum deposits mean Brazil’s fossil fuel development may also increase alongside renewable energy sectors. Large corporations and landowners exercise an inordinate amount of influence over political policy, making it difficult to enact low-carbon initiatives.

Brazil’s low-carbon agenda, as outlined at the 2015 climate conference in Paris, is being sidelined due to the economic crisis and domestic political strife centered on efforts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.

The current effects of climate change are motivation enough

For Brazil, climate change is not just an existential threat.

Increased drought has exacerbated forest fires in the Amazon and led to severe water shortages in São Paulo State and other areas. A recent study has found that Brazil and Latin America’s largest port, Santos, is at risk of frequent flooding due to rising sea levels. Climate change may even play a roll in the recent spate of babies born with brain damage.

For Brazil, like many countries of the global south, climate change is a clear and present danger, with immense human, environmental and economic consequences. For it to create a sustainable, low-carbon economy, it must conquer both the challenges of a developing nation and those that face the world at large.

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