Brazil’s green ambitions

South America’s biggest country needs a major overhaul of its transportation and energy systems.

Rio de Janeiro, and many other Brazilian cities, have serious problems with traffic and car accidents [AP]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – As host of the Rio+20 Summit, Brazil will surely parade its commitment to “green energy” production. The “green economy” is one of the summit’s two major themes and, especially for a developing country, Brazil’s commitment to renewables is far ahead of the curve. The government claims that green energy satisfies 89 per cent of the country’s needs. Brazil is the third-largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world, among the top 20 in wind-energy output, and it is a pioneer in cane-based ethanol production.

Ironically, the “green energy” and “green economy” paradigms have often prioritised “production” over “conservation”, and in doing so, overlook the environmental and social implications of high-yield green options. Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in Brazil’s surging hydropower sector and its anemic public transportation systems.

According to Brazil’s national energy agency, the country’s power supply will have to grow by approximately 50 per cent by 2020 to keep pace with the demands of a larger, more affluent population. Hydro is the natural choice for electricity given the volume and extension of the country’s river systems, but the front-end costs are high. The intention is to build 61 hydro dams by 2019, flooding 5,300 square kilometres of forest, an area four times the size of South America’s largest city, Sao Paulo. The footprint of 15 dams will trespass on protected areas and 13 will encroach on indigenous reserves, either directly or indirectly.

Global news agencies have already documented indigenous and dam-worker revolts springing up across the Amazonian region, giving rise to global cause celebres such as opposition to the Belo Monte Dam in the northern state of Para. Even sectors of the Brazilian government have gotten in on the fight. In mid-April, the Ministry of the Public Defender (Ministerio Publico) re-ordered the closure of the Teles Pires Dam in Mato Grosso after a previous stop-work order was overturned by the judiciary. Government assessments had allegedly failed to address indigenous concerns.

Brazil’s car crisis

While energy generation has dominated the international political agenda, deficient public transportation combined with surging motor vehicle ownership has created what amounts to a national crisis.

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The number of vehicles on Brazil’s roads has increased by approximately 120 per cent over the last ten years, while new vehicle licenses have increased from approximately 1.5 million in 2000 to 3.5 million in 2010, according to the Brazilian Automotive Industry’s latest report. A recent estimate puts the number of new cars on Brazilian roads at 12,000 per day. A fleet of flex vehicles (gasoline-ethanol) amounting to 20 per cent of the nation’s total have helped offset the addition of new exhaust pipes. Yet even setting aside arguments about the relative merits of growing fuel on farmland, it is clearly not enough. At time of writing, not one Brazilian automotive manufacturer produces hybrid electric vehicles, and few hybrid imports grace the country’s roads.

Not that you would want your new hybrid vehicle on some of Brazil’s public roads: roughly one-third of public federal highways are rated as “poor” or “very poor” in a recent survey undertaken by the government-based Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA). Bad highways and new vehicle ownership – especially the surge in motorcycles – have also contributed to the country’s crippling automotive accident rate. Motor vehicle-related deaths have increased by 25 per cent over the last nine years according to the Ministry of Health, with more than 40,000 deaths in 2011 alone.

Accidents, in turn, compound Brazil’s dizzying traffic problems. Time magazine bestowed the dubious distinction of traffic jam capital of the world upon Sao Paulo in a 2008 article, and the city has become famous for 150 kilometre-long traffic jams. In the four years since that article, traffic has only grown worse. But the city’s residents, or Paulistas, as they are known locally, are not the only ones sitting in gridlock. A recent census showed that 29 per cent of Rio de Janeiro’s residents over the age of 10 also spend more than 60 minutes commuting.

Pushing public transport

Public responses to conserving energy, lives and reducing commute times through better public transport have been surprisingly lackluster. One of the many culprits is Brazil’s powerful automotive lobby. As negotiation over Brazil’s current hydro projects and environmental legislation have demonstrated, agri-business, big construction and the automotive lobbies remain relatively unchecked in a country that still lacks lobbying regulation. Perhaps the most emblematic result of industrial rent-seeking is Brazil’s national rail system, which was auctioned off in concessions from 1999 to 2007. The country now has fewer kilometres of rail than it did in 1960, and two companies, America Latina Logistics and Vale do Rio Doce, control virtually all of Brazil’s 29,000 thousand kilometre rail network. Rail is for freight; the World Bank does not even have data on the number of passengers travelling by train in Brazil.

Efforts to extend Brazil’s rail system have been plagued by delays and bottlenecks. Brazil’s Olympic bid included the promise of a 500-kilometre bullet train line connecting Rio de Janeiro with Sao Paulo. Delays in the bidding process begun in 2009, however, pushed final bids back until late 2012. Completion is officially anticipated for 2019, but in reality trains will begin rolling much later if other rail projects provide any example. Construction on the Transnordestina Line (Northeast Line), for instance, began in 2006 and was scheduled to be completed in 2010. But the line is only a little over ten per cent complete and more than 2.5bn reais ($1.22bn) over budget.

Deficient highway and rail options leave pollution-heavy air travel for long-distance passenger hauls. Flying has taken off; World Bank data shows 45 million passengers traveling by air in 2007, a figure that soared to 77 million in 2010.

At the urban level, growth in subway systems is more encouraging, but here Brazil is coming from behind. Investments in metropolitan subways have increased substantially in recent years, motivated in large part by Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Brazil’s third-largest city, Salvador, completed the first phase of its light rail system this year, and new construction is underway in both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Yet getting from here to there is an immense challenge given the anemic state of existing subway systems. Sao Paulo has just under 80 kilometres of rail metro. Smaller and comparatively poorer cities fare much better. Mexico City has nearly 180 kilometres of subway lines, Delhi boasts 190 kilometres, and even Santiago, a city with less than half the population of Sao Paulo, has a more extensive subway system.

The green light, beyond green power

Despite Brazil’s many transportation and environmental shortfalls, the political will to do the best for the country and the environment is clear. Hydropower makes sense. Any country with Brazil’s river system would be foolish to overlook hydro as a first-order energy option. But the key is due process – transparent, conscientious efforts to limit social and environmental damage.

Given Brazil’s authoritarian legacy, achieving these results is not always easy. But as Brazilians are quick to point out – and rightly so – rich countries did much worse as they developed and used their energy resources, not to mention their natural environments. The US has only one-quarter of its original forest cover, and has dammed most every river worth damming. And while it might be instructive to point out the dangers of an emerging car culture, on a per capita basis, the US has more than three times as many cars as Brazil. In the final analysis, the need for conservation – and not just more production through a “green economy” – may be unfair, but it is urgent and universal. 

Gregory Michener is a professor at the IBMEC in Minas Gerais in Brazil, and also serves as an independent consultant on issues related to transparency and access to information. He is a social scientist and researcher specialising in international relations, comparative politics and transparency.