Thanks partly to its success using biofuels to power cars instead of oil, Brazil has become known as something of a sustainable business leader. The country deserves credit for taking some initiative on renewable energy, and at last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was one of the most outspoken proponents for an ambitious climate treaty from any of the world’s major economies. Yet every now and then Brazil embarks on a project which casts a pall over the nation’s environmental accomplishments, and calls into question how serious the national government is about true sustainable business. There may be no better example than the Belo Monte Dam Complex.
Last summer the Brazilian government put its initial stamp of approval on the dam complex, which is actually a series of three dams on the Xingu River intended to generate electricity. The decision was made despite decades of local and international opposition to the project, and fierce resistance from indigenous communities and Brazilian civil society. Though very little time remains to stop the Belo Monte Dam Complex, international activism groups now hope to raise a global outcry that could prevent the government granting the final license for construction to begin.
If built the Belo Monte Complex would divert eighty percent of the flow of the Xingu River to create a huge reservoir, displacing indigenous peoples and devastating swaths of the Brazilian rainforest. Rainforest ecosystems downstream from the dam would dry out and deteriorate once deprived of the river’s flow. Meanwhile upstream forests would drown under the waters of the reservoir. It’s also a mistake to assume this type of giant dam project is a low-carbon way to get electricity. In fact, drowned and decaying trees in the dam’s reservoir would become a major source of methane emissions that contribute to climate change and increase Brazil’s already substantial carbon footprint.
The Belo Monte Dam Complex is clearly out of line with Brazil’s goals for becoming a leader in sustainable business. But is this project even necessary? According to the Brazilian World Wildlife Fund, this rapidly developing country could reduce its expected electricity demand 40% by the year 2020 simply by making existing energy infrastructure more efficient. Belo Monte itself would be among the most inefficient dams in Brazil, because fluctuations in water levels mean during the dry season the dam complex would only produce a small fraction of its theoretical electricity generating capacity.
Brazil has immense potential to develop clean energy technologies, which include wind and solar as well as small-scale hydropower projects. Massive Dams like Belo Monte, on the other hand, should have no place in the country’s clean energy future. Giant dams do not constitute sustainable business, especially not when threatening to flood one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. The Brazilian government should seize the opportunity to reject this misguided project, and put Brazil on the path to become a true leader in sustainable business endeavors.
Article by Nick Engelfried, appearing courtesy Justmeans.