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It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.
In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.
Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.
In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.
One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.
The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.
How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.
The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.
President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.
With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.
Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”
Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.
But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.
Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.
Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.
Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.
The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.
In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.
During a recent trip to Venezuela, I found myself in my Caracas hotel room watching President Hugo Chavez give a speech on TV. I had come to the country as a guest of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation (known by its Spanish acronym IVIC), which was helping to organize an environmental conference about Lake Maracaibo.
I had long been interested in ecological concerns: my dissertation focused on the environmental history of the Venezuelan oil industry. In my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martins' Press, 2006), I touched on the role of American oil companies in the Lake Maracaibo area.
As usual, Chavez was thundering against the United States, in this case striking an environmental theme. North Americans, he charged, had pursued an "egotistical" model of development. Chavez denounced the consumerist lifestyle in the United States, predicated on having more than one car per family.
On other occasions, Chavez has argued that powerful nations are responsible for causing global warming. What is more, he has publicly regretted pollution resulting from traditional sources of energy. He has called on developed nations to look more favorably on alternative energy such as gas, hydro and solar power. To its credit, Venezuela has ratified the Kyoto Protocol reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Venezuela emits only 0.48% of the world's greenhouse gases. According to government officials, the country is in fourth place in Latin America regarding greenhouse emissions after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Nevertheless, Venezuela exports 1 million barrels of oil per day to its northern neighbor and thus contributes to global warming.
For Venezuelan environmentalists, the country's dependence on oil exports is worrying. In an effort to learn more about energy policy in Venezuela, I caught up with Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia in Maracaibo and the former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists. We met in Maracaibo, where I was attending the environmental conference dealing with Lake Maracaibo.
"In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy," he remarked. "I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives," he added.
There are encouraging signs, however, that the government is taking some action. For a country whose economy is almost wholly dependent on oil production, Venezuela has taken some positive steps.
Brazil: An Ethanol Giant
Since 2002, Venezuela and Brazil have fostered an alliance through the promotion of joint energy projects. For example, the Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA has joined with Brazil's Petrobras to construct the Abreu de Lima refinery, located in dirt poor Pernambuco state. The refinery will process crude oil resulting from joint exploration projects in Venezuela.
The energy alliance has in turn bolstered political ties. During the 2002-3 oil lock out, in which the opposition sought to topple the Chavez regime, Brazilian President Lula also shipped oil to Venezuela.
Now, Brazil is helping to spur alternative energy in Venezuela by shipping ethanol to its neighbor. In South America, ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from sugar cane. According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota, ethanol produces 12 percent less greenhouse gasses linked to global warming than gasoline.
For three decades Brazil has used fuel alcohol on a large scale, but it's only more recently that the country has been able to reap the full reward from its ethanol production. Because of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for the reduction of pollutant emissions, there are now great opportunities for sale of ethanol.
With its eye on this great potential, Brazil has dived straight into the foreign alcohol market. Authorities have announced that Brazil will invest heavily in transport infrastructure over the coming years. Almost all Brazilian cars have flex-fuel engines running on both gasoline and ethanol, and the country has reduced its gasoline consumption by nearly half over the last four years.
For Paulo Roberto Costa, Supply director at Petrobras (the Brazilian state oil company), ethanol shipments to Venezuela should "strengthen [Petrobras'] position as an energy company [and] generate great gains to the environment." Costa added that Petrobras stood to benefit, as the company would "enter new markets and sectors, sponsor the growth of Brazil and collaborate to the integration of the countries of South America."
Venezuela Seeks Ethanol Self Sufficiency
Though Venezuela has imported ethanol from Brazil, the Chavez government has also taken action to produce the fuel on its own so the country can become self sufficient. Venezuela has in fact taken the step of eliminating its consumption of lead-based gasoline. The country seeks to produce ethanol for domestic consumption and to add 10% of the fuel to all gasoline.
According to Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, "The elimination of lead from gasoline ... will bring great health and environmental benefits." PdVSA has set up an ethanol producing subsidiary, Alcoholes de Venezuela.
Venezuela will commence construction of 15 sugar cane mills in 2007 and hopes to complete 21 distilleries by 2012. Chavez has pledged to invest $900 million to plant sugarcane and construct processing plants over the next several years. Such a plan is certainly ambitious: Venezuela will have to plant 740,000 acres of sugar cane if it wants to meet its target.
Venezuela and Cuba: Solidifying Ties through Ethanol
Chavez has sought strong ties to Cuba in recent years, and Venezuela is now solidifying an innovative energy alliance with the island nation. For years, Venezuela has exported oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors who have serviced the poor and disadvantaged through Chavez's Barrio Adentro program.
Now, Chavez has gone further by seeking Cuban assistance for his nascent ethanol program. For Cuba, it is a novel opportunity to take advantage of its dormant sugar industry. Though the country was at one time the largest sugar exporter in the world, the island's sugar industry fell on hard times in recent years when falling prices obliged the country to close almost half its mills. Now, however, Cuba says it will modernize its old distilleries as well as build new ones which would be geared principally towards the production of ethanol fuel.
Venezuela stands to gain from Cuban expertise in the ethanol sector. The island nation shall provide Venezuela with parts from its dismantled mills for use in ethanol production. "Cuba is advising us in the process [of ethanol production] and training personnel," remarked Maria Antonieta Chacon, president of the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation.
Ethanol: Solving Chavez's Political Imperative
For Chavez, ethanol not only serves an environmental purpose but also relieves political pressure on the government. In Venezuela, rural to urban migration is a thorny social problem. Caracas, a polluted, crime-infested city, has seen explosive civil unrest in the past and needs to stem the flow of new rural migrants.
Chavez's ethanol plans could help to ameliorate some of this migration by encouraging a nascent industry in the countryside. According to PdVSA, ethanol and sugar cane fermentation "cuts dependence on oil and promotes other economic activities." Under the program, sugar cane will be harvested in 12 states throughout the country and will lead to the creation of 500,000 jobs.
PdVSA has announced that it could build several ethanol plants in the central state of Yaracuy, which is one of the top sugarcane producing areas in the country. Nelson Rojas, General Secretary of the state, remarked that the state's plans to create twenty plants in his state would be a boon to the local economy. According to Rojas, each plant would create more than 12,000 jobs.
Chavez at the United Nations
In his 2005 address to the United Nations, Hugo Chavez derided what he called "a socioeconomic model that has a galloping destructive capacity." The Venezuelan president expressed concern about "an unstoppable increase of energy" and added that "more carbon dioxide will inevitably be increased, thus warming our planet even more."
It's rather ironic that Chavez, as the leader of one of the world's leading oil producing nations, would emphasize global warming at the United Nations. Nevertheless, recent moves by the government suggest that Chavez is willing to undertake some modest changes in energy policy.
While it's certainly environmentally vital for Venezuela to move off lead based gasoline and adopt alternative technologies, Chavez also has public relations considerations. The Venezuelan President wants to paint himself as an underdog on the world stage, struggling against U.S. imperialism and the voracious consumerist appetites of North Americans. By moving towards ethanol, Chavez may deflect criticism that he is hypocritical. In adopting alternative fuels, he also gains politically by shoring up ties to Cuba and Brazil, two key allies in the region.