A short report from Brazil: The relevance of energy issues to the recent protests

By Saska Petrova

When we planned last month’s research visit to Brazil, Stefan Bouzarovski and I did not intend for it to take place during some of the largest protests in the country’s recent history. Yet witnessing the events in close proximity was a major eye opener: Many of the demonstrators’ grievances were closely related to the numerous energy-transition related challenges faced by this nation.

The main purpose of our trip was to meet academics from Brazilian universities so as to explore the possibilities for collaborative projects in the energy domain. Our contacts included scholars from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (FURJ) and the Federal University of Paraná. We were inspired by the intensifying wave of collaboration between British and Brazilian academic institutions that has unfolded during the past few years.

Brazil is an emergent energy superpower – in production and consumption terms alike – which is likely to hold a pivotal role in the world’s future energy flows. The country has the largest electricity sector in South America, and it is the third largest energy consumer in the Western Hemisphere, just behind the United States and Canada. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Brazil’s total primary energy consumption has increased almost by a third in the last decade (39 percent of this figure originates from oil and other liquids including ethanol, followed by hydroelectricity at 29 per cent). It is worth noting that most of the oil is produced in the already-wealthy southeastern states of Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo. Plans to distribute oil royalties more equally between all 26 Brazilian states have been highly contentious, and have generated numerous public protests and heated debates.

The victory of the current president Dilma Rousseff was due, in part, to her perceived competence as an energy minister from 2003 to 2005. In response to last month’s protests, she helped usher a bill through Congress allowing for oil royalties to be fully dedicated to education and healthcare.

The victory of the current president Dilma Rousseff was due, in part, to her perceived competence as an energy minister from 2003 to 2005. In response to last month’s protests, she helped usher a bill through Congress allowing for oil royalties to be fully dedicated to education and healthcare.

Despite the liberalisation of the oil sector in the late 1990s, the state-controlled Petrobras is still the dominant player in the oil sector. Brazil also has one of the least fossil-fuel intensive electricity sectors in the world, with 85 per cent of its total electricity production being generated by hydropower. Demonstrations against the further privatisation of oil and hydropower preceded last month’s protests, and in some ways helped spark the wave of unrest witnessed throughout the country.

The lion’s share (40 per cent or so) of energy consumption in the country is accounted for by households. Intensifying urbanisation dynamics are leading to the continued growth of this figure, and it seems that much of the increase is concentrated in informal settlements. During our trip, it became evident that energy consumption issues in favelas pose significant social, economic, engineering challenges. Also, the difficulties arising from the social exclusion faced by the residents of such areas – much of which have to do with access to infrastructural services – were at the heart of some of the violence seen last month. Professor Suzana Gueiros from FURJ is preparing a more detailed item for this blog about energy consumption issues in favelas.

A favela in South Rio de Janeiro

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