a collective challenge

Marina Gusmão, The caretaker of the birds (or would she be the killer), Watercolor.


Latin America at the rear of the gigantic challenges of the fight against the climate crisis.

To say that victory over the climate crisis depends on political will and the courage to face powerful interests is only expressing half the truth. There is no doubt, as shown by the acclaimed book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC ), that the fossil giants spared no money in financing climate denialism, even when their internal reports pointed in the opposite direction to what they disclosed to the general public.

It is also undeniable that technological innovations in modern renewable energies (among which specialists do not include hydroelectricity) have allowed for a spectacular increase in supply and a reduction in prices of alternatives to fossil fuels. And both social movements (from Extinction rebellion to the mobilization of young people of which Greta Thumberg is the emblematic expression) and expressive segments of the business world are pressuring governments and multilateral organizations to deepen their commitments to drastically reduce emissions. The return of the USA to the Paris Agreement, the adoption of the Green New Deal (which was, at the beginning of 2019, a proposal from the left of the Democratic Party), the Green Deal European Union, the commitment of Japan and India to stop the production of cars with internal combustion engines by 2030 and the Chinese leadership in solar and wind are also fundamental.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this very powerful convergence (and which Latin America is almost entirely against the current) guarantees that the achievement of the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement is assured. Likewise, it is not correct to imagine that the material and sociocultural bases for the necessary transformations for a decarbonized economy are already present.

Although the warning in Michal Mann's recently released book – The new climate war (PublicAffairs) – against climate catastrophism makes perfect sense, he even postulates that “it is appropriate to criticize those who underestimate the threat”. The Paris Agreement is a fundamental achievement, as is the adoption by most large global emitters of ambitious commitments. But achieving the goals outlined in the plans that will be taken to the next climate conference (COP 26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of this year) will not be easy and the magnitude not only of investments, but of social transformations and everyday life necessary to achieve these goals cannot be underestimated.

At the same time, it is important to note the gap between the more constructive paths that emerge globally in the difficult and uncertain fight against the climate crisis and the true complacency of Latin America (not only today, but also, to a large extent, during the first decade of the XXI, when progressive governments predominated in the region) in relation to this, which is the greatest collective challenge ever faced by the human species.

From Copenhagen to Paris

The Paris Agreement of 2015 comes just six years after the frustrated climate conference in Copenhagen, when India and China argued that opting for the rapid decarbonization of their economies meant preventing their populations from having broad access to electricity, obtained basically from coal. The two countries, at the time, emphasized their right to emit greenhouse gases and thus occupy the remaining “carbon space” until the target of two degrees in raising the average global temperature was reached. And this right was based on the realization that they still depended on coal and that there were no alternative sources capable of competing with this fuel to expand their populations' access to electricity. It is interesting to examine today the arguments of researchers Indians e Chinese in this direction.

In 2015 the scenario was different and China and India played an important leadership role in the Paris Agreement. But despite this agreement for decarbonization coming from the largest global emitters, it is important to mention two obstacles (evidently not insurmountable) for the ambitious goals to be consolidated in Glasgow to be achieved.

The enduring lead of fossils

When the first United Nations Climate Conference was held in Berlin, in 1995 (now in Glasgow, the 26th will take place), fossil fuels contributed with no less than 86% of global consumption of primary energy. Since then, despite the innovations that made it cheaper and more accessible to modern renewables and the beginning of the electrification of individual transport, this proportion has only dropped by two percentage points, as shown by the important Helen Thompson article.

It is true, as predicted by several analysts since the 1950s, that conventional forms of oil extraction have now reached their peak and that hitherto most fertile wells show unmistakable signs of exhaustion. This exhaustion was more than compensated, however, by the discovery, at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, of new techniques for exploring gas and oil, which revolutionized the global geopolitics of energy and through which the United States conquered its so desired energy independence, making together with Russia and Saudi Arabia in one of the world's largest exporters of fossil fuels. This is “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing), a technique for deep drilling into the soil, by inserting tubes that cross the water table and manage to extract hydrocarbons from the rocks. The protests that the pollution and emissions associated with these techniques they raised were not enough to dampen the Obama administration's own enthusiasm for its success.

The oil obtained through these new techniques is spread across almost the entire North American territory and its exploitation gains immense social legitimacy for representing the achievement of a decisive North American historical ambition, which is its energy independence. The analysis of the recent book by Daniel Yergin – The new map (Penguin Press) – It's very important. He shows that it was fundamentally the gas obtained with these new techniques that allowed the United States to reduce its dependence on coal which, in 2007, accounted for half of the country's electricity generation, falling, in 2019, to 24%. This, according to Yergin, was the main driver of the decline in North American greenhouse gas emissions, despite its vigorous economic growth. In other words, the USA's success in reducing its emissions is still basically due to the advancement of new forms of fossil fuels, much more than advances in the presence of modern renewables in its energy and transport matrix.

There are two other factors that make the situation even more worrying. The first is the scarce investment by oil companies in modern renewable energies. According to the International Energy Agency, no less than 99% of oil companies' investments are made in portfolios that correspond to their predominant economic activities. And these investments in fossils are now twice as high as the scenario that the International Energy Agency calls “sustainable development”. While oil companies intend to invest annually US$ 630 billion in the period 2021/25, expanding this total to almost US$ 800 billion between 2036 and 2040, the “sustainable development” scenario would consist of starting with investments of little more than US$ 500 billion between 2021 and 2025 reducing this amount to just over US$350 billion between 2036 and 2040. And it is important to note that this insistence on fossils is greater in state oil companies than in private companies.

For the United States, there is a serious geopolitical problem. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels for energy production in the US means turning to modern renewables. However, the global domain of technologies and materials involved in the production of solar energy belongs to China. And it is clear that the Biden government's serious climate commitments cannot lead to an increase in US dependence, in a sector as strategic as energy, on China.

The second factor opposing a rapid energy transition in individual transport is summarized in an important report produced by respected researchers at Princeton University. Bringing net carbon emissions to zero (that is, emissions minus absorption by the oceans, forests and geoengineering techniques, which will be discussed below) requires technological and infrastructure changes that involve huge investments. The advantage of this horizon is that these investments may give rise to the creation of quality jobs and guide the set of economies in which they will be carried out towards a technological trajectory with a high level of innovation.

But the adoption of these technologies is not trivial. The goals set for 2050 assume the entry into the North American individual car market of no less than fifty million electric cars and more than three million electricity charging stations over the next ten years. In homes and offices, the adoption of “heat pumps” techniques will require far-reaching changes. Wind and solar energy, which today account for 10% of the US electricity supply, will have to reach 50% in the next ten years. Furthermore, some fundamental technologies, such as energy storage, are in their infancy.

In Europe, Helen Thompson shows that Poland is exempt from the commitments assumed in the Green Deal, due to its high dependence on coal. China, while occupying the global leadership in solar and wind technologies, continues not only to install new coal-fired power plants, but also to support coal-fired power plants in its Belt and Road initiative.

The transition that made humanity less and less dependent on energy coming from the burning of products such as wood, dung or natural coal for fossils (and, above all, for oil, from the 1950s onwards) meant the encounter of sources with a high concentration of energy and with immense energy efficiency in obtaining it. A spoonful of oil corresponds to the energy contained in eight hours of human work. Now, the challenge is that it is a matter of transitioning to dispersed sources with low concentration of energy. Increasing the efficiency of these sources is something in which scientific research is advancing, but whose results still need to be consolidated in new technologies. The same can be said about the question of the necessary storage of energy, given the intermittency of sources derived from renewables.

The second obstacle to be overcome in the difficult fight against the contemporary climate crisis lies in the fact that the greenhouse gases already accumulated in the atmosphere today will continue to exert negative effects on the climate system, even if the ambitious targets for reducing emissions are achieved. . The problem there is that the techniques offered today to neutralize this factor involve immense risks for which there is no global governance. Release sulfate particles into the atmosphere, solidify carbon dioxide burying gigantic stones (where?) are operations that rightly arouse immense distrust. There is no indication that solutions will be reached within a reasonable period of time that involve the exercise of multilateralism to face this challenge.

And Latin America?

Latin America is not a protagonist nor does it have a strategic role in the discussion on energy transition. It is true that, in the case of Brazil, ethanol represents an important scientific and technological advance. But this advance represents something globally smaller, given the more general movement towards the electrification of mobility in the world.

In addition to being outside the structural changes that will accompany this energy transition effort, Latin America is under a double risk. The first is the resumption of deforestation, especially in Brazil. While the fight against the climate crisis, in the world, goes through scientific research and technological transformations that alter the models of production, consumption and ways of life, the nine countries of the Amazon continue to advance in forest destruction and placing the whole world under the threat that the immense effort to change the global economy will be futile due to the destruction of the largest rainforest in the world. Brazil is the only country in the world where greenhouse gas emissions increased during the pandemic, precisely because of deforestation. The contrast between the global effort to transform the material and energetic bases of economic life and the Brazilian federal government's complicity with deforestation has fundamental geopolitical repercussions for Latin America's relationship with the rest of the world.

The second risk is the insistence (by governments and oil companies) on the continent (the most important of which are state-owned) in persisting in the exploration of fossil products, under the pretext that the demand for these products will not decline in the coming years. Continuing on this path, in societies that are not preparing for the innovations that will mark the efforts of the XNUMXst century in the fight against the climate crisis, is to condemn oneself to the rearguard of global scientific and technological innovation. If Latin America continues on this path, it will only increase the distance that currently separates it from sustainable development.

It is a worrying horizon, since even progressive governments that had committed themselves to “leaving oil in the ground” (the frustrated “Yasunization” in Ecuador is perhaps the most emblematic example of this movement), ended up not fulfilling their promises. And nothing indicates that the income obtained from oil is from the perspective of strengthening projects that allow Latin American fossil companies to become companies with a strong presence in modern renewables and, through this, contribute to their societies getting closer to the most constructive ambitions of the XNUMXst century economy.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Far beyond the green economy (Sustainable planet).

Originally published in the magazine Pink number 3, 2nd series.


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