Low carbon development: what it is and why it is key in the XXI Century, by Larissa Basso

History shows that successful human civilizations might have differed greatly, but had a common feature: they were able to understand the world in which they were embedded and develop in it. Development refers to the ability to change, to do things better, to improve. There is no development in abstract: identifying what is no longer working and changing it requires understanding the circumstances and designing better strategies. Each historical period presents challenges that need to be faced, and the beginning of the XXI Century is not different.

Enhanced interdependence is the main feature of the present time. It was propelled by the digital revolution, which led to the massive production and widespread use of digital logic circuits. From then on, not only greater amounts of information could be created, stored and accessed, but also all three activities could be done simultaneously. This is why distance fells shortened and time, accelerated. Innovation became the asset valued higher in a deeply interconnected global economy. Technology spreads both wider and faster, and is key to offer lifestyles previously inaccessible to some audiences – with gains in nutrition, health care, education and occupation. But the same happens to its impacts.

From approximately 11,000 years, Earth’s natural systems were resilient: able to return to equilibrium after disturbances. Lately, however, two factors changed this picture. First, the demographic explosion – we are more than 7 billion people and most have higher life expectancy than in previous times -; second, the increased per capita use of natural resources, driven by the spreading of technology. By the end of the XX Century, the scale and pace of impacts reached levels never experienced before, and natural systems are not able to cope with them: impacts started to accumulate. In some cases, the accumulated impacts reached a point beyond the limit for a safe human existence (Rockstrom et al, 2009). This is the case of climate.

Climate stability results from a balanced proportion of gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Changes of this proportion alter the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by the planet, and the absorbed amount of sunlight affects Earth’s average temperature. Changes in average temperature affect marine currents and wind patterns, resulting, in the short run, in extreme weather events, and, in the long one, in changes in climate patterns – or climate change. The main driver of climate change is the accumulation of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere, as CO2 is both very effective in conserving heat and can persist unaltered for over a century after emitted. Reducing its concentration equals decarbonization, and decarbonization equals decoupling development from carbon emissions, inaugurating a new development paradigm: low carbon development.

A lot can be done to embark in low carbon development, but changes in practices of three economic sectors are of utmost importance, since, conjointly, they answer for more than 90% of global carbon emissions (GRID-Arendal, 2009): farming (agriculture and livestock production), land use, land use change forestry (LULUCF), and energy.

Farming answers for around 14.5% of global carbon emissions, and its share increases following augmented human population and the popularization of diets rich in animal protein (GERBER et al, 2013). Pilot low carbon farming projects are being implemented in several countries; in Brazil, “Plano Agricultura de Baixo Carbono” lists the recovery of degraded areas and pasture land; the implementation of agriculture, cattle raising and/or forestry integrated systems; the implementation, maintenance and management of planted forests; the implementation of direct cultivation and rotation of crops, reducing the use of machinery and fertilizers; the recovery of legal reserve and permanent preservation areas; and the appropriate disposal of rural waste as key measures (MMA, 2012). Yet, despite some advances in low carbon farming – the European Union, for example, has developed a calculator to measure emissions from several farming practices (TUOMISTO et al, 2013) -, its implementation is advancing very slowly, both globally and in Brazil.

The main drivers of LULUCF are illegal harvest of timber and conversion of forested areas into pastures and cropland (planting, for example, soybeans and palm trees). Even if deforestation is a global trend – data from Russia and other temperate regions prove this is no minor issue (HANSEN et al, 2013) -, tropical deforestation has been on the headlines due to its impacts to both climate change and biodiversity. Some countries have been successful in tackling deforestation. The Brazilian case regarding deforestation in the Amazon region is among them: in this area, deforestation decreased from annual 27,000 km2 in 2004 to 7,500 km2 in 2009 (INPE, 2014). Yet, not only deforestation in other regions of Brazil – in the Cerrado, for example – have continued to increase, but also the trend in the Amazon area was reversed in 2013 and 2014, compared to 2012 (INPE, 2014). In Brazil and in other countries, serious domestic policy implementation and adjustments in the extension and stringency of UN REDD+ Program are among action needed to fight LULUCF.

But energy answers for the bulk of carbon emissions: burning fossil material – coal, oil and gas – to obtain electricity and fuel generates more than 60% of global CO2 emissions (GRID-Arendal, 2009). Decarbonizing energy equals both reducing the use of fossil material in generating energy – switching to low carbon electricity and fuel – and reducing the use of energy itself – increasing energy efficiency and conservation. The picture of the sector is complex, and looks different depending if the short or the long term is focused.

By and far, the use of fossil fuels has been increasing in absolute terms (IEA, 2014); some minor adjustments have occurred due to the exploitation of shale gas in North America, the closure of nuclear facilities in Japan and Europe and the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, which affects the destination of Russian gas. Even in countries with important shares of their energy produced by renewables, the trend is downward: 83.9% of total Brazilian electricity were generated by hydropower plants in 2009, but only 68.6% in 2013 – the share of coal, oil and gas in the electric matrix increased from 6.7% in 2009 to 18.6% in 2013 (EPE, 2014) -; the ethanol production chain was severely punished by the subsidies the Brazilian federal government offered to oil prices (Viola and Basso, 2014). Investing in energy efficiency, limiting the use of least-efficient coal fired power plants and accelerating phase-out of subsidies to fossil fuels are key to revert this global trend (IEA, 2013).

In the long run, however, things might be different. True, there were setbacks to low carbon development: investment in fossil fuel exploitation has increased; biofuels, small hydro, biomass and waste-to-energy saw investments have decreased; in many markets – including Brazil -, deeply rooted vested interests still block low carbon technologies from getting the both the investment and the policy push they need to gain scale and become competitive. However, never before in history have so many low carbon energy and energy efficiency technologies been produced; slowly, they are starting to increase their market share. Renewable energy is increasingly being seen as a stable and relatively low risk investment by institutional funds (FS-UNEP, 2015); news about divestments from fossil fuel are becoming ever more frequent. In 2014, global investment in renewables was 17% higher than in 2013; in developing countries, it was 36% higher (FS-UNEP, 2015).

It is still early to state say that development is changing paradigms to low carbon, but chances are increasingly higher. If confirmed, these will be great news: it will mean that climate change is being taken seriously. Less extreme weather events and lower probability of changes in climate patterns will benefit humanity as a whole, but especially the most vulnerable. After decades of battles to redesign development to include social demands, switching to a global development paradigm that understands the severity of climate change and acts to mitigate it would be a great start for the XXI Century.


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Larissa Basso is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of International Relations of University of Brasília and member of the International System at the Anthropocene and Climate Change Research Network (larissabasso@gmail.com)

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