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Brazil at the energy crossroads

With potential to lead in energy transition, the country could prioritize renewable sources and reduce its carbon footprint, but is faced with contradictions and a lack of planning

With all the potential to lead an energy transition process that is fundamental not only to national and global climate balance, but to facing the real effects of the climate crisis, Brazil is facing a true crossroads, given the countless contradictions that exist between discourses and political decision making. In an interview with ((o))eco, Nicole Oliveira, executive director of the Arayara International Institute and national coordinator of the No Fracking Brazil Coalition, analyzes the mistakes and successes of the national energy agenda and points out ways to overcome the lack of planning that puts the future at risk, in addition to compromising the country’s image precisely at a time when the current government is trying to recover the lost international protagonism in environmental issues. Strongly active in defense of a fair and inclusive energy transition, the director has followed major debates using an activist profile and highly specialized academic training. In addition to her bachelor’s degree in Law from Mackenzie University, she has two master’s degrees in International Law and Conflict Resolution from the UN University for Peace, in Costa Rica, and the University of Innsbruck, in Austria.


((o))eco: When it comes to energy transition, how do you evaluate the Brazilian reality?
Nicole Oliveira: At a crucial moment in which Brazil is preparing to assume a prominent position in the presidency of the G20, at COP-30, and in the midst of a relevant international geopolitical scene, the country finds itself at an energy crossroads. Possessing significant potential to lead the global energy transition, Brazil faces dilemmas and inconsistencies that demand strategic policies, investments, technological innovation and a firm commitment to sustainability.

With an energy matrix among the cleanest in the world, dominated by renewable sources such as hydroelectricity, Brazil could be a model to follow. However, this excessive dependence on hydroelectric plants reveals vulnerabilities to climate variations and socio-environmental impacts. Contradictorily, this scenario has been used as a pretext for a worrying trend of carbonization of the electrical matrix.


What are the main contradictions that exist, in addition to their consequences for the energy transition process in Brazil?

The Brazilian energy strategy presents striking contradictions, such as the planned expansion of fossil energy in the electrical matrix and the intensification of oil and gas exploration in environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Amazon. This approach not only directly affects vulnerable populations, through the territorial impact of projects and increased electricity tariffs, but also worsens the global climate crisis.

Therefore, claiming alignment with the global objectives of a sustainable energy transition seems unrealistic, especially in light of recent significant investments in oil and gas exploration, as evidenced by the new PAC [Growth Acceleration Program]. This scenario places Brazil in a paradox, where its potential to lead the energy transition contrasts sharply with current political and energy choices.

Despite the dilemmas and contradictions, do we have progress underway in the Brazilian energy matrix? And what are the existing obstacles to the expansion of renewable sources?
Advances in the wind and solar energy sector are notable, placing the country as a global leader, especially in wind energy. Although there are policies and incentives that encourage the use of renewable energy, such as financing programs and tax exemptions, there is still a way to go to ensure adequate social and environmental safeguards, essential elements for a just transition. The expansion of solar and wind energy faces infrastructure and logistics challenges, with the urgent need to connect remote regions to the electrical grid, where transmission represents a significant obstacle.


Brazil has also sought to position itself in the main international forums as a country that intends to regain its lost protagonism on the environmental agenda. How do you evaluate this positioning?
Brazil has demonstrated a clear intention to regain prominence in the main international debate forums, a space that was lost in the last four years of the Bolsonaro government. On the environmental agenda, the country has been committed internationally, emphasizing its role in conserving biodiversity, especially in the Amazon, and recognizing the need to expand renewable energy sources. Furthermore, Brazil has sought to dialogue with various stakeholders, including the private sector, non-governmental organizations and indigenous communities to formulate more inclusive environmental and energy policies.


Considering the energy issue, what are the main successes and possible contradictions between discursive intentions and political-institutional practices?
This journey towards leadership is marked by notable contradictions. Despite the speech in favor of renewable energy and the clear reduction in illegal deforestation in the Amazon, the country continues to invest significantly in oil and gas exploration, including in environmentally sensitive areas. There is a discrepancy between the intentions expressed in international forums and the policies implemented at the national level. Furthermore, many energy and environmental decisions are still made without adequately considering the socioeconomic impacts on vulnerable populations. Only with greater coherence between environmental discourse and political-institutional practices will Brazil be able to assume an effective and respected role in the international environmental scene.


Given the main government decision-making in the past on the energy agenda, what are the main mistakes made and their repercussions in the present?
Brazil’s approach to its energy matrix, especially with regard to medium and long-term planning, deserves profound criticism. Due to our historical dependence on water sources, the country has repeatedly shown itself to be unprepared to face water crises, an increasingly common reality due to climate change. The response to these crises has been mostly reactive rather than proactive, with thermal power plants often being the first option.


How do you evaluate these demands generated for the installation of thermoelectric plants and gas supply currently and in the future?
The dependence on thermoelectric plants as an immediate response to water crises is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the majority of these plants use fossil fuels, which goes against the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and compromises the country’s efforts to align with global climate goals. Furthermore, the operation of these plants is notoriously more expensive, resulting in a significant increase in the electricity tariff for the end consumer.


What are the other main risks involved?
When Brazil turns to thermoelectric plants powered by fossil fuels, especially in response to water crises, it is at the mercy of price fluctuations of these commodities on the global market. This means that, in addition to the environmental cost and the direct increase in electricity tariffs, the country may face indirect economic impacts, such as increased inflation, resulting from the rise in fuel prices. This tendency to resort to thermoelectric plants reveals deficient energy planning and a lack of long-term vision.

Instead of investing robustly in renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and biomass, as well as energy efficiency in white goods, such as refrigerators and air conditioning, as well as in civil construction and the industrial sector, Brazil continues to reinforce their dependence on solutions that are harmful to both the environment and the economy.


What consequences could this lack of planning have for the country in the long term?
The lack of adequate planning and investment in more resilient and diversified energy infrastructure leaves the country vulnerable to future water and climate crises. Furthermore, this approach compromises Brazil’s ability to position itself as a leader in the global energy transition, perpetuating obsolete and unsustainable energy generation models.


How do you assess the prospects for meeting Brazilian targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, within the scope of the Paris Agreement, considering the country’s current energy scenario?
Brazil is one of the six largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, and therefore plays a fundamental role in the fight against climate change. Brazil’s current direction of emphasizing the expansion of fossil energy sources, mainly oil and gas, represents a direct contradiction with the emissions reduction targets established in the Paris Agreement. This approach not only threatens global efforts to combat climate change, but also puts the country’s credibility and commitment to international goals at risk.


What are the main concerns regarding this scenario?
There is growing concern that strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions resulting from fossil fuel exploitation are based on false solutions such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Carbon Utilization and Storage (CCUS). These technologies, in addition to offering a justification for the continued exploitation of fossil fuels, divert attention and resources from more sustainable and effective solutions.


What negative consequences can these solutions cause?
CCS and CCUS can create a false sense of security by suggesting that it is possible to continue with current emission practices and simply capture and store the carbon emitted. However, these technologies still face significant challenges in terms of economic viability, efficiency and environmental risks. Furthermore, they do not address other environmental issues associated with fossil fuel exploration, such as air and water pollution, damage to ecosystems and impacts on local communities.


What are the best solutions to avoid these false solutions?
Rather than relying on these uncertain technologies, it would be more prudent for Brazil to focus on reducing emissions through a genuine transition to renewable energy and sustainable practices. This would not only help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, but also position the country as a global leader in the fight against climate change, bringing long-term environmental, social and economic benefits.


The Free Oil and Gas Amazon monitor was recently launched. What is the role of the Arayara Institute in this partnership and the importance of this initiative?
Arayara developed, with the support of the Climate Observatory, Coalizão Energia Limpa, COESUS – Coalizão Não Fracking Brasil and Frente dos Consumidos de Energia this innovative interactive tool called Monitor Amazônia Livre de Petróleo, representing the first phase of an ambitious project. This tool offers detailed information about oil exploration in the nine countries that make up the Amazon: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. What makes this tool unique is its ability to generate maps and spreadsheets, allowing users to quickly cross-reference data about the country, the company involved, the exploratory phase and specific information about the locations, including indigenous lands, quilombola territories and coral regions.


What contributions can this initiative bring to the debate on the topic?
Before the Free Oil and Gas Amazon Monitor, knowledge about this area was dispersed across several platforms, including government georeferenced databases and specialized websites. This disconnect between information made context and risk analyzes of oil and gas exploration more complicated. Arayara’s initiative is a pioneer in providing detailed comparisons of the forest and coastal areas of the Pan-Amazon. Furthermore, the tool will receive periodic updates, ensuring the reliability and updating of information.

Facilitating access to reliable and updated information is crucial to strengthening the active participation of civil society in decision-making processes. Arayara’s initiative is a significant step in this direction, offering a clearer and more integrated view of oil exploration activities in the Amazon region, which is essential for informed assessments and conscious actions by both citizens and decision makers.


What are the main flags currently defended by the Arayara Institute for the Brazilian energy agenda and what are the organization’s expectations in relation to the worsening of the climate crisis and its already noticeable effects in the country?
Currently, the Arayara Institute strongly advocates the energy transition to renewable sources, focusing on solar, wind, biomass and biofuels, as well as reducing Brazil’s dependence on fossil fuels. The organization also highlights the importance of investing in energy efficiency in various sectors, including household appliances, civil construction, engines and industrial refrigeration. Furthermore, the Institute emphasizes the need to adapt cities to climate change, promoting green infrastructure, sustainable buildings, resilient urban planning and sustainable mobility.


Are there signs of preparation by public management, academia and society in general to face turbulent scenarios?
The worsening of the climate emergency and its clearly noticeable effects in Brazil require an urgent response. The Arayara Institute notes that, although there is growing recognition of the climate crisis in public management, academia and society in general, there is still much to be done.


What are the main challenges for the country’s adaptation to the climate emergency, for example?
Preparing for scenarios of climate turbulence involves not only transitioning to a clean energy matrix, but also investing in the adaptation of cities, making them more resilient to the effects of climate change. Lack of adequate investment in climate adaptation poses a significant risk, especially for densely populated urban areas. For us, it is essential that all sectors of society collaborate to face these challenges and work together to build a more sustainable and resilient future.


Originally published by ((o))eco ELIZABETH OLIVEIRA · November 6, 2023

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