Brazil and the United States: Kindred Spirits in the Energy and Climate Arenas

Now that President Dilma Rousseff has been reelected, she must prepare a national energy and climate change agenda for the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. Rousseff has promised to continue her nation’s commitment to reducing deforestation. But she faces criticism because deforestation rates in the Amazon increased by 30 percent between 2012 and 2013, despite a steady, multi-year decline starting in 2004. 

In the October election’s first round President Rousseff faced a strong challenge from Marina Silva. Despite her loss, Silva  continues to be an important figure in Brazilian environmental policy discussions. Had Silva won the election she would have brought to Brazil’s climate policy arena her experiences as national environment minister, her mixed race heritage, and an empathy for the poor that stems from her impoverished childhood. But Silva came under fire for her evangelicalism, which is at odds with traditional Afro Brazilian religions and with gay communities, and for selecting a vice presidential candidate identified with agribusiness.  Land cleared to raise cattle is a chief cause of Amazon deforestation.

Class, Race and Environment in a Federal System

Criticisms of Silva notwithstanding, her life story embodies the connections among class, race, and environmental protection that are too often relegated to separate policy silos in the United States. Some minority and low-income communities in the United States frame climate change as a civil rights issue because of disproportionate harm from extreme weather events. Residents of central urban neighborhoods are suspicious of carbon emissions trading policies that might rob them of the improved air quality that is a co-benefit of reducing fossil fuel consumption. To advance successful, aggressive climate and renewable energy policies, U.S. policymakers must extend a genuinely inclusive hand to members of minority and low-income communities.

Enacting fair climate policies in nations with ethnically mixed population and legacies of slavery and racism is just one of our mutual challenges. Both Brazil and the United States are geographically huge, strongly federal nations characterized by distinctive regions and states whose interests do not align in the climate policy arena and whose political systems are both susceptible to stalemate.

Converging Energy Profiles

Granted, to date our nations’ respective greenhouse gas profiles have contrasted sharply. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are roughly three times those in Brazil, because energy consumption per capita in the United States far exceeds that in Brazil and because of Brazil’s historical commitment to renewable energy sources. In Brazil 80 percent of electricity generation and 46 percent of overall energy use originate with renewable sources. By contrast, energy sectors in the United States are heavily dependent on coal, oil, and natural gas. While deforestation remains an important source of carbon dioxide emissions in Brazil, in the United States land use change (LUC) is a net sink (absorber) of carbon dioxide. 

But the energy and greenhouse gas profiles of our nations are shifting toward one another. Because Brazil’s deforestation rate has diminished considerably since 2004, despite last year’s increase, emissions from energy use, industry, waste management, and agriculture comprised 78 percent of overall emissions in 2010, the year of the national government’s last emissions inventory, and 22 percent was due to LUC. By contrast, in 2005 61 percent of Brazil’s greenhouse gases came from LUC and 39 percent originated from other sources.  Although hydropower is generally considered a clean, renewable source of energy, tropical reservoirs created by dams can become sources of greenhouse gases as carbon sinks (forests) are displaced and as decomposing biomass emits carbon dioxide and methane. Low rainfall threatens to undermine reliance on hydropower and dam projects are highly controversial. 

Wind power generation has increased in Brazil and it could be a source of economic empowerment for low-income residents and traditional peoples in the Northeast. But wind still comprises a tiny portion of overall capacity and government policies are not taking full advantage of Brazil’s wind resources.  Projections for the Brazilian electric utility sector show a meteoric rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the result of expected increases in natural gas use and perhaps that of coal. At the same time, the United States electric utility sector is investing in more renewable energy sources, and that trend will accelerate because of market and regulatory forces.

Brazil and the United States are both agriculture and oil powerhouses, which complicates the struggle to control greenhouse gas emissions. The two nations’ agriculture greenhouse gas emissions are almost equal in absolute terms, attesting to the central importance of that sector in Brazil, which boasts the world’s seventh largest economy. Both nations are important oil producers and Brazil’s production will increase, given its large offshore deposits.

U.S. climate and energy experts tend to look to northern European nations like Germany for policy and technology lessons.  But we should also cast our glance south, to Brazil, where climate policy, energy mix, regionalism, agriculture, and environmental justice are as tightly connected as they are in the United States. With our Brazilian policy counterparts we can learn how to weave these considerations into energy and climate decisions and work together against the backdrop of our many social, political, and economic commonalities.