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Large Dams Fail on Climate Change and Indigenous Rights

Insights + Opinion

Brazil has flooded large swaths of the Amazon for hydro dams, despite opposition from Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and others. The country gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower. Brazil's government had plans to expand development, opening half the Amazon basin to hydro. But a surprising announcement could halt that.


In an interview with O Globo, Mines and Energy Executive Secretary Paulo Pedrosa said the government is reconsidering hydro construction in the face of societal pressure, environmental damage and increasingly competitive renewable energy options.

We can see parallels in Canada, where large hydro projects have been pushed through despite similar opposition and concerns.

With an October election in Brazil, things could change, but we hope whatever government holds power will recognize there are better options than large-scale hydro. We also hope the BC government will reconsider its decision to proceed with Site C.

Hydropower isn't as "green" as many people once thought, and climate change creates new challenges. Decades of research show greenhouse gas emissions from large hydroelectric projects can be substantial, especially if carbon dioxide emitted during steel and concrete manufacturing and construction activities is accounted for.

Decomposing materials in reservoirs emit methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 over the short term. A 2016 study confirmed findings of studies from Canada and elsewhere going back decades that methane emissions from hydro dams are far greater than previously estimated. Minimum emissions are similar to those from generating electricity using natural gas. And receding glaciers and changes in precipitation patterns from global warming put hydro dams at risk because of lower water levels.

Large-scale hydro also causes enormous environmental and social damage, including farmland and habitat destruction, changes to waterways and water tables, and displacement of Indigenous Peoples. Where large areas of land are flooded, mercury in fish increases several-fold, making this traditional source of protein risky to eat.

In Canada, large-scale projects such as Site C in BC and Muskrat Falls in Labrador run counter to our commitments to combat climate change and respect Indigenous Peoples' rights. Both projects are over budget and years behind schedule.

Canada's auditor general recently found the current mid-century climate strategy won't meet our international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent between 2005 and 2050.

These facts and rapid improvements in electricity generation suggest Canada should rethink its climate strategy. Renewable energy options can generate needed electricity for lower cost and in a timelier manner, as a recent Site C analysis shows. Conservation measures can reduce energy needs.

Solar and wind power have increased in efficiency and decreased in cost at several times the rates estimated a decade ago. The lowest electricity cost in Canada is from an Alberta wind farm, which will supply 600 MW of electricity at an average cost of 3.7 cents per kWh, at least three times lower than Site C power.

Fears that solar and wind are unpredictable have been nullified by recent developments in mega-storage batteries. In November, Tesla installed a 100-MW battery in Australia's outback to handle power outages and daily demand fluctuations. In contrast to recent hydroelectric projects, it was delivered ahead of schedule and on budget.

Despite Natural Resources Canada's identification of enormous geothermal resources in Canada, this power source has scarcely been considered, except for shallow heat pumps for individual dwellings and buildings. Many oil and gas wells in Western Canada reach hot water, which might be used either directly or to map underground isotherms that allow efficient drilling for geothermal power. Expertise for drilling geothermal wells already exists in the oilpatch, facilitating the transfer of jobs from old fossil fuel technology to less carbon-intensive industries.

Provincial and federal government ministers have touted continued development of oilsands, LNG-fired electricity and pipelines as interim activities needed to make the transition to a low-carbon economy. As the auditor-general's report demonstrates, these activities will prevent Canada from fulfilling its international obligations to reduce emissions. We have neither need nor time for transitional industries.

Brazil's announcement sets an example. Canada must also meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gases and improve relations with Indigenous Peoples. To do so requires avoiding the massive hydro development that Canada's mid-century climate plan would require and instead rapidly transition to modern energy sources.

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Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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