Brazil: Adaptation or Carbonization

The Brazilian economy has been temporarily taken hostage by re-carbonization. Coal-fired thermal power station capacity is being ramped up in order to compensate for low provision of national hydroelectric power, which is being hindered by “divine force” due to the region’s severe and ongoing drought.

At the August 2015 launch of the Brazilian government’s “Plan for Investments in Electrical Energy” package valued at R$190 billion (US$52 billion), Minister of Mines and Energy Mr Eduardo Braga celebrated the shut-down of 12 thermal power stations that had been activated as back-up due to the water shortage over the last few months. The aforementioned Plan, according to the government, would ensure national energy supply at competitive international market prices, while prioritizing clean and renewable sources.

Interestingly, neither the Plan nor the celebration came with resilience measures that could turn public investments into allies in reducing Brazilian energy’s current and future vulnerabilities and risks. As it stands, the Plan ties the country to a capital that is declining due to climate change, and worsens the global warming issue due to the emissions created by coal-fired thermal plants.

As for new hydroelectric investments, studies on the effects of global warming on hydrologic regimes indicate negative effects for water flow rates across different climate change scenarios. These projections also predict significant reduction in areas considered key for new Brazilian investments, such as São Luiz do Tapajós in the northern state of Pará, which will see a flow reduction of at least 20%. Belo Monte, an icon in investments already being made in the Amazon, also shows negative behavior in various climatic and hydrological scenarios.

The Plan’s investment package is directed – both technologically and geographically – towards critical areas like the Amazon and Pará with regard to energy risks. But the outlook of this is an energy mix vulnerable to changing rain regimes, and in practice geared toward more carbonization due to a lack of resilience.

This narrative conflicts with the promise to achieve global economy decarbonization by the end of the century, made by President Dilma Roussef during a visit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Brazil, decarbonization might really mean avoiding unnecessary carbonization.

How can Brazilians start decarbonizing? By adopting a national energy matrix that ensures greater reliability. It is a known fact that infrastructure typically has a long life cycle. When it comes to hydroelectric power plants, an average operation can last over a century, implying exposure to the long-term impacts of climate change where harsher effects are to be expected over time. Hydroelectric efficiency will depend on good or bad management of climate change risks as well as other environmental factors that can shorten a project's life cycle and waste resources.

In this sense, the resilience of an infrastructure, especially an energetic one, is central to ensuring that countries such as Brazil, who historically invested in renewable energy sources, can afford to maintain their leadership and effectively contribute to global decarbonization.

Related information (in Portuguese):

Economia da Mudança do Clima no Brasil: Custos e Oportunidades

Análise da mudança climática no setorelétrico (slides)

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