Mixed signals in Brazil

I have been in Sao Paulo this week at Sustentavel 2009, perhaps the premiere Sustainable Development event in Brazil, if not all of South America. At the opening I represented the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and then on the first day of presentations I participated in the main climate change panel session.

What is clear is that there is a passion in Brazil for sustainability – from the huge issues they face in the Amazon region to the road congestion in Sao Paulo. Talking with delegates at Sustentavel, it is also clear that the country faces an interesting future in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the IEA, in 2006 fossil energy CO2 emissions in Brazil were 332 million tonnes. Reportedly (from delegates at the conference), this represents some 25% of overall CO2 emissions in Brazil, which puts emissions from deforestation at about 1 billion tonnes per annum and total emissions at some 1.3 billion tonnes. Such a figure, if correct, would put total Brazilian emissions at about the level of Japan and India.

Brazil blog post bubble chart

From an energy perspective (i.e. putting to one side for the moment emissions from deforestation) Brazil is one of a handful of countries globally that is managing a development pathway that is compatible with a 450 ppm trajectory – i.e. keeping emissions below 2 tonnes per capita even as it continues to develop. Although emissions per capita have risen since 1970, there has been a plateau of sorts more recently. Brazil has achieved this through its large-scale use of renewables, namely hydroelectricity and biomass, the latter both as a source for transport fuel (ethanol) and electricity. Although CO2/KWhr jumped from 50 gms to 88 gms between 1990 and 2000, it fell back to 81 gms in 2006.

Brazil blog post line chart

Looking forward, continued expansion of hydroelectricity is under pressure. Although only 30% of theoretical capacity has been utilised, new projects are taking some 10 years to complete owing to increasingly stringent permitting requirements. Meeting future electricity demand may mean that the country needs to draw increasingly on alternative sources, particularly natural gas which is being discovered offshore. CO2 emissions from natural gas use more than doubled between 2000 and 2006.

In the transport sector, ethanol and now bio-diesel use is continuing to grow. Between 2000 and 2006 oil demand was flat despite a nearly 20% increase in both GDP and overall energy demand. Brazil still has a formidable potential for increasing ethanol and bio-diesel production, even as it grapples with the issue of deforestation. Brazilian ethanol also has a very low CO2 footprint owing to the use of bagasse as a fuel in the ethanol plants, many of which also produce electricity for the local community. But Brazil is also on the verge of becoming a new petro-economy. Offshore discoveries now amount to some 70 billion barrels of oil equivalent. If consumed this will result in emissions of 25 billion tonnes of CO2 or the equivalent of an additional 1-1.5 ppm in atmospheric CO2. In addition, there may be further CO2 emissions after removal from contaminated offshore natural gas.

What solutions lie in Brazil’s future? The first priority is of course to address deforestation, but one option that doesn’t immediately jump out of the page but could be pivotal for Brazil is the application of carbon dioxide capture and storage. Whilst Brazil is a low CO2 economy, CCS could help it remain so whilst letting the country make best use of the resources it has. For example, CCS applied offshore is a potential solution to the CO2 that will be removed from any contaminated natural gas.

Longer term, CCS could be tied in with the nations huge biomass potential (even after deforestation is addressed) to possibly deliver a negative CO2 economy by 2050. Gasification of biomass is a technology gaining ground today. As in the gasification of coal it produces syngas, which can then be used for electricity generation, with a high purity CO2 stream remaining. When sequestered, with biomass as the original feedstock, the process is effectively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Most biofuel processes (e.g. manufacture of ethanol) also produce bio-CO2 that could be captured and stored. These approaches may be pivotal in the quest for atmospheric stabilisation at safe levels.

So although Brazil has real sustainability challenges ahead, particularly in the area of deforestation and the further expansion of hydroelectricity, it also offers tremendous opportunity for managing emissions on a very large scale. Certainly the willingness is there, you could feel it at the conference. Now that needs to be turned into political action to drive the solutions forward.