Sustaining human development in a changing climate – some words on Brazil

There are more than seven billion of us spread over the five continents nowadays. According to the United Nations, we will hit more than nine billion by 2050.

Such astounding numbers put forth some pressing challenges to all sectors in our society. How will we feed everyone – not only in the quest for overcoming hunger, but also granting the nutrients people need to lead healthy lives? How will we grant water and energy for households and industries in a world of shrinking resources? How can different countries and regions adapt to a changing climate and its effects on the environment and on our cities? There are a myriad of other questions that pop up with these – and the heat waves, droughts and storms we see multiply all around the globe serve as a good reminder that we won’t be able to ignore any of such issues if we want to thrive as a species growing at a fast pace. Not only social and economic activity changes the environment and echoes on climate but both climate and environment, too, weigh heavily on human conditions of life and resonate on economic activity.

Car uncovered by the low levels of water at the Atibainha reservoir, Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2014. Credit: Futura Press.

Car uncovered by the low levels of water at the Atibainha reservoir, Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2014. Credit: Futura Press.

As a society, we still lack a deeper understanding of climate change and sustainable development as being tightly knit within the social fabric. However, first of all we lack a better notion of climate change and its effects alone. An overall perception that global warming is taking place doesn’t necessarily come coupled with the idea it is mostly manmade (such as this recent Yale University study pinpoints in the USA). And politicians can push their denial towards environmental crises to dangerous limits in some cases (like the governor of São Paulo, in Brazil, who just declared the water crisis official in the state – one and a half year after the drought started. It is the worst water shortage the region has seen in eight decades).

It all fits in a chain of elements that don’t determine but can heavily influence each other: a more scientifically accurate public perception of the causes of climate change can lead to more pressure on politicians to take action (People’s Climate March last year in New York and cities all over the world make a good example of that). More social pressure and more information can, on the other hand, inform policies that have a decisive impact on our daily lives. A good energy policy depends on the world markets as much as it depends on the availability and management of natural resources – which have the world climate as a key element.

In this sense, the rate at which trees are being cut down in the Amazonian forest (more than 20% of the region is currently deforested) could start to be felt in São Paulo. Brazilian researchers say large quantities of water are transported from the Amazon downstream South America in the form of vapor, liberated through forest ‘perspiration’ – bringing, then, rain to the southern and central parts of Brazil. The phenomenon, nicknamed “flying rivers”, has a crucial importance in thermal regulation and in rainfall cycle in the Southern Cone – and scientists see evidence that climate change and deforestation combined are interfering in the process. Added to previous policy decisions, less rain in the Brazilian southeast has deepened the water and energy crisis São Paulo has crossed since early 2014, after seeing its main reservoirs drying up to critically low levels – which, as a consequence, has put poorer households under vulnerability, since they are the most affected by the shortages in water supply. Getting hydrated, cooking and keeping hygiene routines can be much harder with intermittent periods of lack of water.

Besides representing a higher hydric risk for many families, water shortages could also put forth an energy challenge in the Brazilian case: more than half of all energy produced in the country stems from hydropower. Investments in alternative sources are still timid but they do exist. Eolic energy, for example, answers for almost five percent of the total amount of energy generated in the country. Photovoltaic, on its side, answers for 0,01% of the total – with much room for growth mainly in its Northeastern portion, which is the region with higher incidence of sunlight in the country. But there’s a lot to be done beyond Brazil, too: if we could make use of all light our planet receives from the Sun, it would take an hour to harvest the energy the planet needs to go on for about a year – without the use of a single drop of oil or a gram of coal, leaving potable water for improving hydric security for millions of people who lack both water and energy right now. To achieve that, we would need more than super-efficient solar panels, though. We’d need super-efficient policies and more information available on how to make them possible – and thus improve living standards of people around the world with better access not only to water and energy but to education, sanitation and food in a changing climate and environment.

brusselsMeghie Rodrigues is a freelance science writer based in Campinas, Brazil. She is a journalist and earned her M.Sc. in Science Communication from Campinas University, where she worked as a reporter covering climate change and environment for ClimaCom magazine for more than a year. She has also been a contributor to the GalileoMobile project in the Communications team.

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