11 August 2009: Brazil must look after the Amazon – with our help

Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, says (quite often) that “Brazil is in charge of looking after the Amazon” and, to be fair, his government has tried to reduce the rate of destruction. However, being in charge doesn’t mean paying the bill. In 2006, the Brazilian government proposed a fund, based upon donor country contributors, to defend forests. In climate terms, preventing deforestation makes more sense than investing in re-forestation, as trees do not grow fast enough to absorb enough carbon. The future international climate treaty must include significant sums of money for forest protection.

57% of Brazil is forested – over 475 million hectares. Between 1990 and 2005, 8% of its forest cover was lost. Between 2005 and 2007, the rate of forest destruction was reduced by half, but since then it has been rising again. Logging, much of it illegal, is an obvious cause of Amazon destruction. Cattle ranching and other agriculture (particularly for animal feed or soybeans) are other main causes. Historically, hydroelectric projects have flooded enormous areas of Amazon rainforest. Brazil gets almost 80% of its electricity from hydro (see Brazil – climate and energy statistics), which makes it acutely vulnerable to low rainfall years.

Brazil now has a high level of energy security. It imports very little oil, but imports a lot of gas, mainly from Bolivia. Curiously, it produces little coal, even though its coal reserves are higher than Germany’s. It has weaned itself off oil imports partly by expanding its own oil industry – and it may now have discovered an enormous new oil field – and partly by using biofuels. The latter is mainly ethanol from sugar cane which, unlike ethanol from corn, is less damaging to the climate than is oil.

However, the use of ‘good’ biofuels is pretty much the only Brazilian success story on renewables. Reliance on enormous hydro schemes is not good for the climate, particularly when they cause forest destruction. There is minimal wind or solar power harnessed. The country has an average of 280 days of sunshine per year, but fails to use it to heat water. Instead, water is heated using electricity – electric showers account for 6 to 8% of Brazil’s total electricity consumption and more than 18% during peak hours. So, an obvious contribution to Brazil’s development is to install solar thermal water heaters.

But there’s no avoiding the fact that Amazon protection is essential for climate protection. So providing international resources – a small fraction of what we spent saving the banks – must be part of the Copenhagen agenda.

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