Developing Countries and the Climate Change Convention

In the runup to December’s COP21 climate change talks in Paris, Brazil’s best-known scientist has issued a powerful challenge to the developing world’s most polluting nations to get behind the initiative, and to abandon decades-old rhetoric that blames rich countries for what has long been a shared global responsibility.

Professor José Goldemberg, a veteran nuclear scientist and alternative energy expert who is the new head of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), said that developing countries must now acknowledge the fact that they contribute 48%  of the carbon emissions responsible for global warming – surpassing the contribution of the US, the EC and China (45%).

José Goldemberg throws down gauntlet to  climate change negotiators.

José Goldemberg throws down gauntlet to climate change negotiators.

Among these developing nations are a trio of “big polluters” who contribute 14% of global emissions – India, Indonesia and his own country, Brazil. Prof. Goldemberg insists it is high time for developing countries – which were exempted from making emissions under the old Kyoto Proytocol on the grounds that it would hinder their industrial growth – to stand up and be counted in Paris.

Time to be counted: developing nations must "get with the Paris programme."

Time to be counted: developing nations must “get with the Paris programme.”

Unless diplomats from developing countries cease to paint themselves as colonial-era victims of unfair industrial growth that for centuries has benefited developed nations at their expense, Prof Goldemberg says there is no prospect of reaching an agreement in Paris that will maintain global warming below 2oC by 2100. In fact, says Goldemberg, reducing carbon emissions does not prevent development and can even improve its quality. Developing nations should stop stonewalling and get with the global programme of saving our shared environment, rather than protecting their short-term interests.

No time to hide: Brazil is one of a trio of developing nations producing 14% of carbon emissions

No time to hide: Brazil is one of a trio of developing nations producing 14% of carbon emissions

Goldemberg, who was formerly rector of the country’s leading university, calls on negotiators from developing nations soon to attend the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference to scrap their “outdated vision of development” and to embrace alternative energy – especially sustainable biofuels, as Brazil has done.

Brazil's sugarcane industry brings biofuels leadership

Brazil’s sugarcane industry brings biofuels leadership

The physicist, who has been  in his new job heading up Brazil’s most dynamic research funding agency for  just a few weeks, is already seeking to raise Brazil’s profile as a country committed to scientific solutions, rather than shoring up an unsustainable status quo.

In a nation where scientists tend to have a low profile and take little part in public debate,  Prof. Goldemberg  enjoys widespread public trust as an opinion leader, and he commands considerable clout with Brazil’s federal government. So painting high-income developing countries — rather than those  now-traditional villains the US, China and the EU —  as the real laggards and obstacles on the road to a global climate framework, is a powerful message that should alert his own country’s negotiators as they head for Paris.

You can read Prof. Goldemberg’s open letter to COP Paris Climate Change Conference delegates here:

“In preparation for the Climate Change Convention to be held in Paris in December, countries are sending to the Secretariat of the Convention their commitments to reduce gas emissions, responsible for global warming. The United States, China and the European Union, whose emissions now account for about 45% of the total, have announced ambitious and quantifiable goals. Russia and Japan contribute to 7%

The remaining 48% of emissions originate from more than 150 other countries whose individual contributions are less than one percent, with the exception of India, Brazil and Indonesia, who represent 14%.

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

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 century when countries industrialized, but it was precisely the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels that has led to the serious pollution problems we are facing today.

The emergence of more energy efficient technologies and renewable energy sources, – has opened new avenues for sustainable development. China, for example, is a country that is following this path and thus announced that from 2030 on it will reduce its coal consumption and consequently greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil is another example of a country where renewable energy sources are abundant. One of them is sugarcane, from which one can produce alcohol (ethanol), an excellent substitute for gasoline. Sugarcane alcohol has been produced in Brazil for over 500 years. To produce it in large quantities and at a cost that enables it to compete with gasoline is a huge challenge, but Brazil has managed to do it and has assumed global leadership in this area in the recent decades.

Ethanol is non-polluting, unlike gasoline renewable because cane is a crop that grows every year. It’s like solar energy transformed into a liquid. The United States, with all its economic and technological power, tried to repeat Brazil’s success in this area, using corn as raw material (since sugarcane does not grow well in its territory). Despite improvements in processes and in indicators of sustainability, they were unable to match Brazil’s sugarcane mitigation capacity of greenhouse gas emissions.

The 25 billion liters of ethanol used annually in Brazil as a substitute to gasoline, reduces carbon emissions by 50 million tons, 10% of the country’s emissions (excluding deforestation).

By 2008, ethanol production in Brazil seemed able to be expanded, as well in several other countries that are major producers of sugarcane in Central America, and India. In Africa there are very large areas where sugarcane grows very well. It could thus become a product that would be exported to Europe and the United States, where the production of ethanol from other raw materials is more expensive.

However after 2008, the Brazilian government’s economic sector “froze” the selling price of gasoline in the country, as a form to combat inflation.

As a result, PETROBRAS was forced to import gasoline at international prices and sell it at a lower price in the country, causing major losses, in billions of Brazilian reals, to the company. A collateral victim of this policy was ethanol, whose price is indexed to gasoline’s price. The Government may control the price of gasoline, but it cannot avoid the increase of other costs, much less inflation, and this prevented the expansion of ethanol production. Out of the 450 existing power plants, about 100 faced serious problems and many went bankrupt. In retrospect, the Government’s behavior on this issue seems to result from personal and ideological idiosyncrasies of some of the federal authorities involved.

Clean fuel, which in the early years of the Lula government seemed to be one of the national development flagships, and that could contribute to the sustainability of the planet and generate millions of direct jobs, is fighting hard to survive.

Another problem is that ethanol exports from Brazil and its expansion has given rise to non-tariff barriers, based on arguments involving scientists which have generated great controversies, such as:

  • Is the expansion in ethanol production in Brazil one of the causes of deforestation in the Amazon?
  • Does biofuel production reduce food production and contribute to increased world hunger?
  • Does replacing gasoline with ethanol actually reduce the emission of gases that cause global warming?

To analyze all these issues, FAPESP in cooperation with SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment) from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has prepared a study involving 137 experts from 29 countries and 82 scientific institutions who have prepared a report of over 700 pages explaining how bioenergy behaves in the nexus of energy, environmental and climate security, and how it can contribute to sustainable development and innovation in the world (

The report is entitled “Bioenergy and Sustainability” and is being presented at international conferences in several countries (and also at the World Bank). This document will likely become the most updated reference work in this area and will probably play an important role in clarifying and eliminating non-tariff barriers that have been raised against the use of ethanol. The adoption of this option in many countries could significantly contribute to overall reduce emissions of “greenhouse” gases.

A physicist, José Goldemberg is President of FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation


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