By: Emilio Lèbre La Rovere and André Santos Pereira


Brazil plays an important and unique role in climate change. It is one of the ten largest economies in the world and — most importantly for climate change — home to one of the greatest ecosystems and forests of the planet: the Amazon. Brazil is the eighth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the third largest emitter in the developing world after China and India, according to 2000 World Resources Institute figures. Unlike most developed and many developing countries, Brazil's energy sector contributes little to the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Unsustainable land use and forestry contribute most.

Brazil's track record in renewable energies is an example to many. Brazil is the world's largest producer and also consumer of ethanol, which it has added to gasoline since the 1970s. This has reduced both greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in urban centres, where more that 80 per cent of the 180 million Brazilians live.

In international negotiations, Brazil points out that climate change is driven more by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than by yearly emissions, primarily because the most important greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) remains in the atmosphere for more than a century on average. Yearly emissions data therefore generally overestimate developing countries' contributions to climate change, and underestimate that of developed countries. Brazil therefore says that it will not limit its greenhouse gas emissions until the middle of the century.

Brazil's vulnerability to climate change

Brazil is vulnerable to climate change, not least due to its fragile, biologically diverse ecosystems.  The tropical rain forest in the Amazon and the Pantanal wetland are of particular concern. Some studies show that, as temperatures rise, the Amazon rain forest could become dryer, making spontaneous fires more frequent. Those fires would release more greenhouse gases increasing their concentrations in the atmosphere, in turn raising temperatures further. There is also concern that coral reefs along Brazilian coastlines could suffer from the effects of climate change.

Changing rainfall patterns, especially in the drought-affected northeastern region of the country, will mean poorer water resources and a reduced water supply. Agriculture will suffer, aggravating the risk of famines. Less rain will also affect the hydropower supply, which, according to the International Energy Association, provides more than 80 per cent of the electricity Brazil generates. Floods, which are already a serious problem for various regions, may increase. Coastal areas, where the bulk of the population and economic activities are concentrated, will be vulnerable to rising sea levels.

How climate change will affect agricultural productivity is not yet understood in detail.  But possible effects on crops that are particularly important to the country's economy, such as corn, soybean, wheat, coffee and oranges, are a great concern.

Finally, rising temperatures are expected to help organisms that act as vectors for diseases, such as mosquitoes, which transmit dengue fever and malaria, and assassin bugs (Tripanosomiasis americana), which transmit Chagas disease.

Brazil has yet to undertake a comprehensive study of how climate change will affect its economy, society, agriculture, health and environment. It is important that Brazil completes such a vulnerability assessment in order to support policy decisions on how to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Emissions profile

The Brazilian emissions profile differs from developed countries, where burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation contribute most to overall emissions. In 1994, only 17 per cent of Brazil's total emissions came from energy production. Emissions from agriculture, land use and forestry, however, were together responsible for 81 per cent (see Table 1).


Emissions in carbon dioxide equivalents Energy Industrial processes Agriculture  LULUCF*  Waste  Total
Carbon dioxide 236.51 16.87   – 776.33   – 1,029.71
Methane 9.22 0.07 233.70 41.52 18.47 302.98
Nitrous oxide 2.66 4.14 148.89 3.55 3.55 162.80
Total 248.39 21.08 382.59 821.40 22.02 1,495.49
Total % 16.61 1.41 25.58 54.93 1.47 100.00

* land use, land use change, and forestry
Units are megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent

About 38 per cent of the country's energy supply is generated from renewable sources, most importantly from large hydropower stations, which are responsible for 13 per cent, followed by sugarcane and wood (12 per cent each) (see Figure 2). As a result, energy emissions per person are relatively low (0.50 tons of carbon per person compared to 5.58 in the United States). But Brazil's emissions are fairly high for its overall economic activity because the sectors that contribute most to the economy, including iron and steel, cement, aluminium, chemical, petrochemical, pulp and paper, and transportation, rely heavily on fossil fuels which produce large amounts of greenhouse gases.

The primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil is deforestation as agricultural frontiers expand, mainly in the Amazon region. In climate change policy jargon, this is referred to as 'land use, land use change, and forestry' (or LULUCF) emissions.

Deforestation contributes to climate change first when forests are burnt, releasing greenhouse gases. Burning is widely used in the Amazon region to prepare new agricultural land. When forests are cleared, carbon that was held in the soil is also released as carbon dioxide or methane. Natural decomposition within intact forest is a further source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

Good estimates of how much land has been deforested are available from satellite images. But the corresponding emissions are very hard to calculate, because of a lack of reliable data on how much biomass the different kinds of forests and savannahs hold.

Demand for wood drives deforestation, as does the demand for land for large soybean plantations and extensive cattle rearing. Significant institutional gaps, especially between legislative power and law enforcing authorities, makes enforcing environmental laws in the Amazon region very difficult.

In Brazil, emissions from raising cattle are as important as energy sector emissions. Farm animals release methane, and according to the Ministry of Science and Technology, in 1995 these emissions were in the order of ten megatonnes, 80 per cent of which came from beef cattle. Converted to carbon dioxide equivalent (see Box 1), that is equal to 233.7 megatonnes — only slightly lower than the 248.4 megatonnes of greenhouse gases emitted by the energy sector the previous year. Nitrous oxide is the second important gas emitted by agricultural activities, and accounts for nearly 150 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This brings the total emissions from the agricultural sector to just less than 383 megatonnes — one and a half times what is emitted by the entire energy sector.

Different greenhouse gases have different influences on the climate change process, and cannot be compared directly. So the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) developed a way to estimate their effects as carbon dioxide equivalents. Over 100 years, one tonne of methane has the same impact on the climate change process as 23 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and one ton of nitrous  oxide has the same impact as 296 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Government action: Brazilian efforts to lower emissions

Brazil has implemented many programmes where the primary objective was not to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but this has happened as a 'side-effect'. They include the ethanol and PROCEL programmes. Other programmes, such as the PROINFA and the biodiesel projects, were created with the express intention of reducing emissions.

The Brazilian ethanol programme
The Brazilian ethanol programme was first launched in 1975, when international sugar prices tumbled, and the oil bill of 1973 had increased the country's financial burden. The programme remains the largest commercial application of biomass for producing and using energy in the world. It succeeded in demonstrating the technical feasibility of large-scale ethanol production from sugarcane, and its use as a fuel for cars.

The ethanol programme helped curb the increase of air pollution in Brazilian cities and reduce the greenhouse effect. In 1997, Isaías Macedo of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) showed that using sugarcane ethanol and bagasse (the dry pulpy residue left after extracting juice from sugar cane) had avoided the emission of 9.45 megatonnes of carbon in one year (1990–1991). The carbon that is released into the atmosphere when bagasse and ethanol are consumed for fuel is compensated by an equivalent quantity of carbon that the sugarcane absorbs during its growth. Taking into account only the gasoline that is not burned, using ethanol has avoided the release of 5.86 megatonnes of carbon per year between 1980 and 1990.

The PROCEL (Electrical Energy Conservation Program)
PROCEL was created in December 1985 to reduce the waste of electrical power on both the supply and the consumer side.

In 1999, Emilio La Rovere and Branca Americano calculated the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, and how much gas release PROCEL avoided. PROCEL's contribution was significant. In the 1990s, the bulk of Brazil's energy consumption was supplied by hydropower, so the emissions from the sector were modest. In 1997, emissions from the Brazilian power sector were 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. In the same year, PROCEL activities avoided the emission of 1.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (in carbon dioxide equivalent).

The PROINFA: Incentives for renewable energy sources
In April 2002, the Brazilian Congress approved a law aiming to establish a compulsory market for renewable energy. The law also provides the necessary legal support for creating a scheme to feed power from renewable sources into the national electricity grid. The programme, called Programa de Incentivos às Fontes Alternativas de Energia Elétrica (PROINFA) helps independent power producers using renewable sources of energy supply a higher share of electricity to the national grid.

PROINFA has two phases. The first will install 3,300 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity based on biomass, small hydro power plants and wind power. This represents just under one per cent of the total electricity production in 2002. PROINFA's second phase was intended to increase the share of these sources to ten per cent. But new regulations in the power sector have necessitated a review of this target, and PROINFA's second phase is not yet defined.

Stimulating large hydropower investments
Lula da Silva's national government administration changed the power sector regulations, to increase the attractiveness of, and opportunities for, private investments in hydropower generation. The new regulations mean that hydropower projects cannot be presented to public tender until after the governmental energy planning agency grants an environmental licence. The aim is to reduce environmental risks to investors, and to stimulate hydropower investments.

Other energy programmes
In 2002, Brazil proposed the Brazilian Energy Initiative, which set targets to increase renewable energy use throughout Latin America. The chosen target was to have ten per cent of energy needs supplied from renewable sources by 2010. The initiative received strong support at a meeting of the ministers of environment from Latin American and Caribbean Countries held in May 2002, and influenced negotiations on renewable energies during the World Sustainable Development Summit. The summit's final documents call on countries to "work with urgency to substantially increase" the global share of renewable energy. The summit urged countries to switch government subsidies from nuclear and fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, in order to encourage the growth of renewable energy sectors.

Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that uses charcoal in the production of iron and steel. Because the charcoal comes from a renewed crop, this reduced emissions of carbon dioxide in the industrial sector by 50 millions tonnes between 1990 and 2000.

Finally, Brazil has just launched a National Biodiesel Program, aiming to progressively increase the share of biodiesel content in diesel fuel used all over the country. The goal is to have at least three per cent of biodiesel added to fossil diesel by 2008, and five per cent by 2012. Currently, no biodiesel is used in Brazil. Biodiesel can be produced from several beans and palms that grow easily in Brazil, such as dendê, castor bean, soybean, sunflower, peanuts and others. It can also be made from animal fat, sewage and used vegetable oil. The National Biodiesel Program aims to promote biodiesel produced from castor beans and dendê palm produced by smallholder agriculture in poor areas, such as the country's north and northeast regions.

The government's stance on future emission targets

Brazil is an important developing-country player in international climate change negotiations, and, with China and India, one of the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the developing world.

Brazil maintains that yearly emissions should not be seen as a proxy for a country's responsibility for climate change. This responsibility, it argues, is more closely related to contribution to global temperature increase. Since carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for more than one century on average, past emissions need to be taken into account.

 As a result, in international negotiations, Brazil has refused to accept emission targets before the middle of the century. At that time, Brazil believes that the burden of responsibility for the total emissions present in the atmosphere would be the same for developing and developed countries.


Brazil's size in geographic, demographic and economic terms adds to the complexity of the climate change problem. Brazil leads many other countries in promoting renewable energy sources, which already occupy an important share of the energy mix and have great potential to grow further. Therefore, in terms of mitigating the energy sector's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, Brazil has been doing very well. But the country still needs to study its vulnerability to climate change so it can prepare for the unavoidable effects of climate change. Unfortunately, in this field, Brazil is late in taking action.

Brazil emission's profile is atypical: LULUCF emissions, notably from deforestation in the Amazon, are the main source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the scale of deforestation, but also because, unlike many countries, a large part of Brazil's power comes from renewable energy sources. Moreover, emissions from cattle contribute as much as energy sector emissions, in part because of the enormous number of cows—almost one per Brazilian citizen.

Deforestation in the Amazon comes hand in hand with considerable biodiversity loss, and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is a crucial problem that must not be denied. Brazil claims a right not to be bound by the requirement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce its emissions (even after the Kyoto Protocol has reached its term in 2012). The authors believe this should not be used as an excuse for failing to deal with the Amazon problem. On the other hand, he issue of the deforestation of the Amazon should be viewed independently of post-Kyoto negotiations. In either case, the authors welcome international and national pressure against deforestation in the Amazon.

Emilio Lèbre La Rovere is head of the Center for Integrated Studies on Climate Change and the Environment, and a professor at the Institute for Research and Post-graduate Studies of Engineering of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro - CentroClima/COPPE/UFRJ.

André Santos Pereira is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of High Studies in Social Sciences – (EHESS - Paris) and a contributing researcher at CIRED (France) and at CentroClima/COPPE/UFRJ (Brazil).

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