As climate change impacts surge around the world, no country is immune. But Brazil, home to more than half of the Amazon rainforest, is on the frontline. The largest country in South America is confronting a wide range of challenges as the government’s stance on forests exacerbate climate change risks. Deforestation is on the rise in Brazil as 2019 saw the number of fires in the Amazon increase by more than 30 percent from the previous year.
The Amazon plays an important role in Earth’s climate system. These forests recycle water to maintain rainfall and drive atmospheric cycles in the region. They also absorb around 5 percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, making it a critical carbon sink in the global fight against climate change.
In 2017, Brazil supplied 78 percent of its electricity with renewable sources (compared to the U.S., where only about 17 percent of electricity comes from renewable sources), but 61 percent of that electricity came from hydropower. Over the past decade, the country has suffered some of its worst droughts in history, threatening the viability of hydropower as well as exacerbating already high levels of economic disparity and social unrest.
As a result of these droughts, the country’s recent 10-year energy plan seeks diversification in energy sources. Although the plan calls for maintaining current hydropower levels, it also seeks to increase Brazil’s capacity of solar, in particular with a goal for the mix to reach 28 percent non-hydro renewables by 2027.
But this energy plan is coming about in the middle of a presidential administration in Brazil that resists taking action on climate change. President Jair Bolsonaro has accused environmental advocates of starting the Amazonian fires and argued that conservation efforts hinder development. If he means loggers are not able to do their job due to conservation efforts, that is sometimes true, but if the rainforest is decimated, there will not be any work for them to do at all. Further, this stance puts the country’s resources, and electricity supplies, at risk: Of Brazil’s freshwater sources, 70 percent come from the Amazon region.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology uses little to no water to generate electricity, making it a good option when trying to balance all of Brazil's complicated issues related to climate change. But one factor that has to remain uppermost in any policy is addressing the country's stark economic inequality, made worse by its recent recession.
Too many Brazilians do not have access to proper sanitation, clean water or reliable energy — in fact, about 4 million Brazilians lack access to safe drinking water. This vulnerable population already disproportionately suffers the effects of poor air quality. In turn, these communities risk greater susceptibility to diseases as they are mired in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. Exacerbating this linkage, poor health leads to greater stress on the economy overall, making this challenge one that involves the nexus of the environment, health and economics.
More emphasis has been placed recently on the economic equality opportunities that could result from deploying more solar in Brazil. One company, Faro Energy, has created a sustainable bond in Brazil to fund both solar power and community projects in rural areas. The project aims to develop educational programs at a public school next to a 6,385 megawatt-hour solar farm — which, according to Faro, is equivalent to the amount needed to power about 3,600 Brazilian homes.
Having a direct positive social impact is important when investing in clean energy technologies, especially in areas where people face disadvantaged economic situations. Beyond these direct kinds of investments, solar deployments — if designed well — could lead to other benefits such as job creation, grassroots development and entrepreneurship, and women's empowerment, advocates have observed.
Climate change presents many complexities, no more so than in places like Brazil, but the deployment of clean technologies such as solar power can help address social and environmental problems while generating safe and secure energy. Comprehensive, purpose-driven investment portfolios and innovative energy and environmental policies are necessary to tackle climate change. Brazil has a lot on the line, but it also has unlimited opportunities.
Image credit: Faro Energy
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.