All nations must share blame or lose climate battle

Brazilian expert says developing countries must also play their part in cutting emissions if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

ethanol plant brazil
Sugar can being transported for a mill and an ethanol manufacturing plant in Campo Florido, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Because the price of ethanol had been pegged to the price of petrol in order to try to reduce inflation, the country's production of ethanol had been hit. Image: T photography /

The developing world’s most polluting nations must abandon the decades-old rhetoric that blames rich countries for climate change and share responsibility for reducing emissions to avoid dangerous overheating, according to Brazil’s best-known scientist.

José Goldemberg, who took office as president of the São Paulo Research Foundation(FAPESP) this month, named Brazil, India and Indonesia − which account for 14 per cent of global emissions − as the three key developing countries that need to abandon an outdated vision of development and use more energy-efficient technologies.

“Without these countries – which were exempt from reducing their emissions by the Kyoto Protocol – making significant efforts, it will be impossible to avoid a global warming of 2°C by 2100, a value that scientists consider as the maximum tolerable to prevent more dramatic climate change than those already taking place,” he said.

Goldemberg, a nuclear physicist and alternative energy expert, said on taking office that it was time for Brazilian scientists to play a leadership role in society and shake off the “ivory tower” approach that prevents academics engaging with the outside world.

Several developing countries have argued that reducing carbon emissions will seriously affect their development, and that the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices is still the best option available to them…This is an outdated vision of development.

José Goldemberg, president of the São Paulo Research Foundation

Danger threshold

In an open letter to delegates attending the Paris negotiations in December, which are aimed at reaching a global agreement to keep temperatures below the 2°C danger threshold, he called for a new approach from the developing world.

“The United States, China and the European Union, whose emissions account for about 45 per cent of the [world] total have announced ambitious and quantifiable goals.

“Russia and Japan contribute to 7 per cent. The remaining 48 per cent of emissions originate from more than 150 other countries whose individual contributions are less than 1 per cent, with the exception of India, Brazil and Indonesia, who represent 14 per cent.

“Several developing countries have argued that reducing carbon emissions will seriously affect their development, and that the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices is still the best option available to them.

“This is an outdated vision of development. It was valid during the 19th and 20th centuries, when countries industrialised, but it was precisely the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels that has led to the serious pollution problems we are facing today.”

He held up China as a country that has embraced more energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources as a new avenue for sustainable development. It had enabled China to announce that, from 2030, it will reduce its coal consumption – and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions.

Goldemberg then launched into an attack on his own country’s failure to capitalise on its own success in producing ethanol from sugar cane − “an excellent substitute for gasoline”.

He said: “Ethanol is non-polluting, unlike gasoline, and is renewable because cane is a crop that grows every year. It’s like solar energy transformed into a liquid.”

He said Brazil had managed to produce large quantities as a cost that could compete with petrol and had assumed global leadership in the field, but government behaviour – “the result of personal and ideological idiosyncrasies” – had seriously damaged the industry.

Because the price of ethanol had been pegged to the price of petrol in order to try to reduce inflation, the production of ethanol had been hit, and 100 of the existing 450 plants faced serious financial problems and went out of business.

The industry could contribute to the sustainability of the planet and generate millions of jobs, but is now fighting hard to survive. The 25 billion litres of ethanol used in Brazil as a substitute for gasoline reduces carbon emissions by 50 million tonnes − 10 per cent of the country’s emissions, excluding deforestation.

Great potential

He said that in 2008, before the Brazilian government began to interfere, ethanol production was expanding in Brazil and Central America and India.

Africa also had great potential because it was suitable for growing sugar cane, and there was a ready export market to Europe and the US, which could not produce ethanol so cheaply from corn and other crops.

He accepted that there had been criticism of ethanol because some experts claimed that it contributed towards deforestation in the Amazon and damaged food production, and some doubted that it actually reduced the emission of gases that cause global warming.

These issues, he said, had now been fully examined in a study involving 137 experts from 29 countries and 82 scientific institutions, in a report entitled Bioenergy and Sustainability.

Goldemberg hoped that the report would help to inform people and eliminate many of the barriers raised against the use of ethanol, which, in many countries, could significantly contribute to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

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