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Analysis: The four sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In the race to curb the climate emergency, the global debate has focused on replacing dirty energy sources, like coal and oil, with clean ones, like solar and wind.

But while Brazil is the world’s sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter and at the same time has a mostly clean energy matrix, it has its own global warming villains.

The lack of knowledge and debate about which are the main sources of Brazilian emissions hinders the search for solutions for the local reality.

Deforestation and forest degradation process generates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo internet reproduction)

After all, in a country that minimizes the use of coal, what is the source of Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions?

1. Land use change and deforestation

Almost half of greenhouse gases Brazil dumps into the atmosphere come from what researchers call “land use change.”

In 2019, this category accounted for 44% of total Brazilian emissions, something around almost 1 billion tons, according to the System of Estimates of Emissions and Removals of Greenhouse Gases (SEEG), a Climate Observatory initiative that conducts annual surveys based on data from government reports, institutes, research centers, sectoral entities, and non-governmental organizations.

Such ‘changes in land use’ are nothing more than the removal of native vegetation and the exploitation of natural resources. The deforestation and forest degradation process generates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Brazilian percentage is alarming because it far exceeds the global average. According to Climate Watch, in 2018 only 6.5% of global emissions resulted from land use change.

The figure is also high because it must be considered that the Brazilian Amazon rainforest covers 5 million km2 and represents 67% of the world’s tropical forests, factoring in only the delineated Legal Amazon.

A good part of it is destined for cattle-raising: land-grabbing operations, land occupation and the burning of timber are intended to transform regions into low-quality pastures after deforestation.

According to the Imazon institute, deforestation in the Amazon increased 51% from August 2020 through June 2021, with over 8,000 km² of green area devastated. It was the highest deforestation rate in a decade. In June this year, the Amazon lost over 1,000 km² of native forest, according to INPE (National Institute for Space Research).

Zero deforestation or “net-zero deforestation” policies, in which the change in land use can be offset by replanting trees elsewhere, may help to change these current figures, experts say. The problem is that this is not being done as it should be.

In the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, Brazil committed to reducing deforestation to lower gas emissions by 37% by 2025, which would mean emitting 1.2 billion tons. However, the Brazilian government loosened its target late last year, setting the goal of limiting emissions by 1.7 billion tons.

According to research conducted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the new target allows the country to deforest up to 13,400 km² per year until 2025, almost double the former limit, which was 7,400 km².

2. Farming (cattle flatulence and belching)

Changes in land use do not encompass farming and cattle raising activities, and in Brazil, where agribusiness’s contribution to GDP is huge, it is an equally huge source of emissions.

The segment accounts for 28% of direct greenhouse gas emissions. There were almost 593 million tons emitted in 2019, up 1.1% from 2018. Growth stood at 50% over 30 years from the 402 million tons of gases emitted in 1990.

Here again, livestock farming is a major focus of emissions: most greenhouse gases (61%) come from so-called “enteric fermentation”, part of the digestive process of animals.

In other words, they are the gases (mainly methane, 10 times more powerful than CO2) emitted in the belching and flatulence of animals such as cows, goats and sheep. There were 366 million tons of enteric fermentation emissions in 2019 alone.

Soil management operations, which include cultivation, cropping, land correction and fertilization practices, accounted for 192 million tons of the emissions from animal agriculture, or 32%.

The remainder is divided between animal waste management (3.9%), rice cultivation (1.8%), and the burning of agricultural waste (0.9%). Rice cultivation is counted separately from other crops because its irrigation produces a unique methane-emitting process.

3. Energy: Transport and Electricity

The Brazilian energy matrix is only in third place in this ranking.

The segment was responsible for a 19% slice of the pie in 2019, after counting both fugitive emissions (involuntary and arising from equipment under pressure) and those caused by the burning of petroleum-based fuels, as well as mineral coal.

Despite not leading the ranking, the energy sector is among those of greatest concern to experts because of its growth rates. Between 1990 and 2019, emissions from the energy sector increased by 114%, causing its share of the total to nearly double from the 10% recorded in the early 1990s.

The sector is broad and encompasses everything from the production and use of fuels for areas such as transportation to electricity generation and industrial, residential, commercial, public, and agricultural energy consumption.

In this emissions cocktail, the categories that contribute most to releasing gases into the atmosphere are transportation and electricity generation. Freight and passenger transportation modes accounted for 47% of emissions in 2019, whereas electricity generation sources come after transportation within the energy sector.

The Brazilian energy matrix is one of the most renewable on the planet, which explains the segment’s lack of prominence in the climate issue. According to a study conducted by the Energy Research Company, 83% of power generation in Brazil in 2019 came from renewable sources. The global average is only 25%.

The figures show that this subcategory’s emissions history is among those that have varied the most in recent years. This is mainly due to the reduced use of thermoelectric power plants in recent years.

In 2019, electricity generation was responsible for over 53 million tons of gases emitted into the atmosphere, an increase of 7% compared to 2018. On the other hand, there was a reduction of more than 32% from the 78.2 million tons recorded in 2015, when a drought caused thermoelectric power sources to multiply.

However, this percentage may increase again in the coming months, due to the water crisis Brazil is experiencing, with a low level of reservoirs at hydroelectric power plants. Energy generation through thermoelectric plants has broken daily records in 2021. In June, the generation was an average of 19,200 megawatts, surpassing the 15,800 megawatts recorded during the 2014 energy crisis.

4. Industrial processes and residues

Last in the Brazilian emissions chain are the categories that encompass industrial processes and waste.

The former accounts for 99 million tons of emissions, almost double that recorded in 1990 and a number that has remained stable over the past decade. Together, the production of metals and minerals accounts for more than 75 tons of emissions from industrial processes.

Emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemical industry, non-energy use of fuels, use of solvents and use of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) are responsible for the remainder.

Meanwhile, waste accounted for 4.4% of the total in 2019. The figure is almost triple what it was in 1990. Waste is disposed of in landfills, dumps, biological treatment, incineration or open burning, and domestic or industrial treatment.

Source: Capital Reset

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