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CLIMATE CHANGE: Brazil Defends Biofuels

Posted on 08 December 2009 by editor


Smoke from sugar cane burn-off chokes the air in the countryside. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Smoke from sugar cane burn-off chokes the air in the countryside. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Claudia Ciobanu


COPENHAGEN (IPS/TerraViva) – Being the world’s largest producer and exporter of ethanol, it is natural for the Brazilian government and its partners to push biofuels as  the only real alternative for a world trying to wean itself away from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

Brazilian authorities were ready with their arguments at the United Nations climate change summit underway here. Over the past 30 years, since the country embarked on its ethanol programme, an estimated 800 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions have been avoided.

Brazilian delegates were at pains to show that not only is biofuel production the best way to reduce greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions but it can also combat poverty as exemplified by the country’s scheme to promote micro-distilleries to provide additional income for rural families.

Biofuels have, however, come under serious attack in recent years for eating into farmlands meant for food production. As a result, the European Union backed out, last year, from a commitment to introduce a 10 percent mandatory quota of biofuels in all transportation by 2020.

In Brazil itself environmentalists have pointed to biofuel production as one of the key reasons for the steady deforestation of the Amazon basin.

Countering such criticism, Jose Migues from the Brazilian ministry of science and technology said:  “We were told that biofuels lead to deforestation in the Amazon, but the ethanol production areas are 3,000 km away from the Amazon.’’

Migues referred to Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), a phrase describing the effects of biofuel production, which pushes human activities towards the Amazon rainforest. In the Sao Paulo area, where most ethanol production is concentrated, there has been a significant decrease in cattle raising and agricultural production.

“But is it fair to say that all of these activities are now moving to the Amazon?” asked Thelma Krug, another representative of the ministry.  “There is much room for making agriculture and cattle raising more efficient in Brazil.”

While the question of where Sao Paulo’s farmers have moved remained unanswered in Copenhagen, the planned expansion of the ethanol industry threatens further displacement. There are currently over six million hectares under sugar cane in Brazil, but Krug said there are “64 million ha available for expanding sugar cane production.”

She said the government is working on using satellite imagery to monitor the loss of forest cover and keep deforestation under check. A representative of Nature Conservancy, a Brazilian NGO, spoke of the thoroughness of forest protection laws.

As for food security issues linked to biofuel production, Andre Correa do Lago, director general of the energy department in the ministry of foreign affairs, stopped short of an outright denial that biofuels were to blame for the 2008 rise in food prices.

“Food security is one of the main concerns of our government,” he said. “Biofuels, like any other human endeavour, can be done in a better way. So we should not use the worst case as a general reference point.”

Legislation is under consideration to prevent biomass burning, which is responsible for large amounts of GhG emissions. Much of the waste, especially bagasse, is increasingly replacing polluting nitrogenous fertilisers. The production process is being made more efficient with nine units of energy being produced from bagasse for every unit of fossil energy.

But while admitting that “biofuels are no silver bullet,” Brazilian authorities insist that they are the best way forward for developing countries.

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Q&A: “We Are Moving Towards Modest Cooperation”

Posted on 07 December 2009 by editor

Mario Osava interviews Brazilian physicist JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG, key figure at 1992 Earth Summit


José Goldemberg. Credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science

José Goldemberg. Credit: American Association for the Advancement of Science

(IPS/TerraViva) – Vested interests in fossil fuels have blocked major steps against global warming so far, according to José Goldemberg, who has played a leading role at key times in the climate crisis facing humanity.

One of the driving forces behind the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, when he was the Brazilian interim environment minister, Goldemberg says Brazil today lacks the leadership it exercised at the Earth Summit and in the subsequent negotiations that produced the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, because its current proposals are so lacking in vision.

A respected energy expert and winner of the 2008 Blue Planet Prize, a kind of environmental Nobel Prize awarded by the Japanese Asahi Glass Foundation, the 81-year-old physicist continues to work as a professor at the Institute of Electrotechnics and Energy at the University of São Paulo.

In this interview with TerraViva, Goldemberg said he expects an outcome of “modest cooperation” from the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-15), which opened Monday in Copenhagen.

TERRAVIVA: There is a tremendous difference between perceptions of climate change in 1992, and today. And carbon dioxide emissions have risen a great deal, in rich countries as well as in emerging ones, in spite of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. Were we naïve about it? Did science take too long to reveal the seriousness of the problem?

JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG: The 1992 “vision” was rather naïve. At the same time, we did not expect so much resistance from fossil fuel producers against changing their technologies and adopting newer and less polluting ones.

This explains why emissions reductions targets in the industrialised countries, spelled out in the Kyoto Protocol, have not been met. And developing countries, which had no binding reduction targets and were only responsible for 30 percent of global emissions in 1990, are now emitting 50 percent, but they are reluctant to take on commitments to reduce them.

This is partly due to the fact that the consequences of global warming take time to make themselves felt, so there is no very strong sense that urgent action is required.

TV: A change in the global energy mix cannot wait until oil runs out, let alone coal reserves. What can be done to overcome the inertia that is preventing a transition to a low-carbon economy?

JG: The assessment reports based on expert research published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the evidence that the signs of global warming are becoming clearer, are helping to motivate countries. There is no doubt, for instance, that the frequency of extreme climate events has increased in recent years.

TV: Can nuclear energy contribute to the solution?

JG: Yes, if the other problems associated with it are solved, such as safe disposal of radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation. These problems are different from those created by fossil fuels, and they are far from being solved, as can be seen in the cases of Iran and North Korea.

TV: What blocked the approval of your proposal of a target of 10 percent renewable energies in the global energy mix, which you presented at the Rio+10 conference, held in Johannesburg in 2002?

JG: The resistance of coal and oil producing countries, including the United States. The European Union enthusiastically supported my proposal, and in fact still does, and is now planning to generate 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

TV: Why has ethanol not taken off as a fuel, as the Brazilian government wishes? Have its prospects changed, in the face of the near panic caused by climate change?

JG: Ethanol has not taken off because the United States and the European Union impose tariff barriers to protect their domestic industries, which produce fuel alcohol from maize and wheat at a cost two or three times higher than Brazilian ethanol made from sugarcane.

TV: What are your expectations of the COP 15 conference? Is the world moving towards another “cold war,” as Graciela Chichilnisky (an Argentine-American scientist who made valuable contributions to the Kyoto Protocol) claims, or towards cooperation, since nobody wins from global warming?

JG: I think we are moving towards modest cooperation, because even China and India are planning to do something to reduce their emissions, although not as much as is needed.

TV: Has Brazil taken on a leadership role again on environmental issues, as it did in Rio in 1992, and in Kyoto in 1997?

JG: No, because the Brazilian proposal on its emissions reductions to COP 15 was formulated belatedly, and is voluntary rather than binding, so it has been received with a certain lack of trust. It’s easy to promise to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent by 2020, but it’s harder to keep that promise.

In addition, the Brazilian proposal is conditional, rather vaguely, on financial support from industrialised countries. In contrast, the target adopted by the southern state of São Paulo, which is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent in comparison to 2005  levels, is clear, objective, and was well received.


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