Energy Development in the Context of Climate Change

Climate change is likely to affect how successful energy development is in the Brazilian region (de Lucena et al. 2009). Droughts in the past decade have been the worst in history, reflecting the effects of climate on forest health (Marengo etal. 2011). The Amazon is an important climate resource as it represents a carbon sink and its destruction could contribute significantly to climate change. The viability of local populations hangs in the balance, as they are affected both by climate change impacts and energy development. Therefore, the Brazilian government and global environmental community currently must identify how to protect the Brazilian Amazon and its local populations while also supporting the expansion of clean energy.

Climate change presents two challenges to energy development in the Amazon. First, energy resources could be taxed or reduced due to a changing climate. Second, the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could affect energy choices. A central mechanism for the release of GHGs in the Amazon is deforestation. In 2009, Brazil committed to a 36-38 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2020, which included a reduction in deforestation by 80 per cent in the legal Amazon. Therefore, energy development should be sensitive to the way it affects deforestation, but may not always be.

Energy development in the Amazon could be plagued by a variety of challenges. Biomass development could be threatened by changes in rainfall that, in turn, affect the growth of such resources. In addition, climate change can reduce the availability of land necessary to grow biofuels and could shift the distribution of insects that affect their growth, in addition to a wide variety of other factors that could negatively affect biomass (de Lucena et al. 2009). This is unfortunate since biomass can be a critical source of energy for the poorest local populations who depend on its burning for cooking and livelihoods. Forest die-back may occur in the frontier region of the Amazon as biomass is developed, reducing the availability of biomass and further driving migration into the forest as the search for viable land to develop continues.

Hydropower resources will likely be taxed by changes in seasonal water availability, drought, dry spells, and changes in air temperature that increase evaporation from reservoirs (de Lucena etal. 2013). Increasingly severe droughts in the Amazon are likely to affect the viability of existing and planned dams, especially if deforestation continues and impacts microclimates driving precipitation patterns.

There are several critical impacts that energy development in the Amazon may have on rainforest resources, possibly demonstrating that they are less sustainable than generally considered for renewable energy resources. Deforestation is not a factor traditionally accounted for in environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that preface the construction of energy installations. However, large infrastructure projects in the Amazon often have unintended and largely unmeasured effects on deforestation. Infrastructure development, such as that for energy and transportation, in the Amazon may present a newly influential factor driving deforestation rates to increase in the Amazon (Southworth et al. 2011; Malingreau, Eva, and De Miranda 2012).

Recent studies of biomass development have demonstrated a clear connection between the planting of new crops to provide lesser-known biomass resources and deforestation (Fearnside etal. 2009). This is a less-known issue in the case of large dams, although a few studies have demonstrated the effects of such installations on deforestation. There are several drivers for this phenomenon. First, large dams require tens of thousands of employees during the construction period. These workers often migrate from other areas to the work site. In addition to individuals who work on the dam itself, populations whose occupations support the workers generally appear in the surrounding area. These include, but are not limited to, physicians, sex workers, farmers, and restaurateurs. After the dam project is complete, its workers and these additional populations often stay in the area, next developing new roads and housing to accommodate their permanence. They, in turn, increase deforestation. In the case of Santo Antonio and Jirau in the western Amazon, unexamined and unintended environmental and social impacts included the expansion of soy production amongst other long-term consequences of development (Fearnside 2014).

In this way, infrastructure and migration patterns into the Amazon are major determinants of deforestation and sustainability. In particular, migration into the Amazon can expand deforestation. Since some cities are already established in the Amazon, some deforestation can be expected as it comes from cities within the Amazon into adjacent areas. This migration is driven by economic need and or familial networks (Randell and VanWey 2014). Many who occupy the Amazon and could move to urban areas, therefore taxing the Amazon less, choose to stay outside of urban areas because their skills are not suited to the urban environment, but rather to rural activities (Macdonald and Winklerprins 2014).

Deforestation rates have been decreasing in the Amazon for the past decade with some slight variation over time. These rates have been widely touted as a success and many believe will remain fairly static now that there is a well-established surveillance system in place. However, infrastructure development there may change this recent trend. There are large-scale plans to develop many forms of infrastructure in the Amazon (Fearnside 2002). Research has demonstrated that the development of such infrastructure will lead to vastly increased deforestation rates due to ‘contagious deforestation’ wherein one small area of deforestation leads to more deforestation nearby (Laurance etal. 2002). The development of roads is a well-known mechanism for increases in deforestation, yet there is little analysis of how these long-term infrastructure projects may affect deforestation (Barni, Fearnside, and de Alencastro Graqa 2015).

Some research has shown that infrastructure development, such as increases in electrification, can decrease deforestation rates because it increases productivity (Assunqao et al. 2015). However, cost-benefit analyses of large infrastructure in the Amazon is often insufficient or mischaracterized. For example, the economic value of the Belo Monte dam would change from US$1.62 billion to negative US$3.56 billion if the estimation of water flow were conducted correctly (Amend, Fleck, and Reid 2013).

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