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Free Online Tool Lets You Assess Dam Projects Around the World

Energy
The Tucuruí dam as seen from the air. Bruno Huberman courtesy of Repórter do Futuro / Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Salisbury

Mega-dam construction is booming around the world, with promoters hyping hydropower as a green, renewable source of energy and a means of curbing climate change.

But as these dams are built in the Amazon, Mekong and elsewhere, they're doing great environmental and social damage and their green credentials are no longer adding up.


For example, high quantities of greenhouse gases are released from submerged soil and rotting vegetation, and from turbines and spillways, especially in the tropics, meaning that dam projects are often not the environmentally-friendly option they seem. But assessing the various impacts of dams, alongside their economic viability, is a complex task, and the decision-making process behind a dam is rarely transparent.

Now, a new tool has been developed with the aim of making this kind of assessment more open and available to all. The free HydroCalculator tool, developed by the NGO Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), is accessible online and is easy to use. The tool's developers, CSF founder John Reid and CSF researcher Thaís Vilela, hope it will allow "a broad group of citizens, researchers and policymakers, to foresee and monitor the economic and environmental consequences of hydropower projects."

The HydroCalculator's end output offers a clear presentation of the net economic value of the dam under consideration, with and without the cost of greenhouse gas emissions factored in; the number of years required before the project generates a profit; and the number of years until net carbon emissions become negative.

Thousand Island Lake in China, the result of a dam built in the 1950s on the Xin'an River.Bryan Ong / Flickr

Reid was inspired to develop the HydroCalculator tool after carrying out numerous cost-benefit analyses of dams, and finding that many such projects "threatened ecosystems and didn't deliver much economic benefit," he said. "I wanted to make it easy for other people to do this sort of analysis.

"For too long, environmentalists had tacitly accepted that it was none of their business to weigh in on the economic merits of big construction projects. That's nonsense," he continued. "The tool is part of a bigger effort to make nature's advocates real players in large public investment decisions."

Vilela said the number of projects which aren't financially feasible "is surprising," and that "transparency in the decision-making process is our main goal."

To use the tool, accessed via CSF's website, the user inputs key project data, including the size of the area to be flooded, the vegetation types that will be submerged, projected costs, dam generating capacity and the price at which the electricity will be sold.

Default values for several factors, such as vegetation carbon content, the wholesale price of energy, and the energy discount rate, are available online if specific details are unknown. All of the dam project analyses that have previously been carried out can also be consulted on the website.

A graphic depiction of major factors influencing greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric dams.Vilela and Reid (2017) under a CC BY 4.0 license

Reid and Vilela validated the tool against in-depth, peer-reviewed studies of Amazonian dam impacts, and found that their simplified methodology produced comparable results. Although the precise results varied, the relative costs and benefits of different existing Amazon dams, and their economic feasibility, was similar. The inclusion of the cost of greenhouse gas emissions had both positive and negative effects on the economic feasibility of different dams, they found, but did not change the overall feasibility for any of them.

Recent scientific studies have shown how important hydropower dams are as a source of methane, something largely overlooked in dam impact assessments. Methane is far more potent than CO2, but it also degrades more quickly: over 100 years, methane has an effect more than 30 times stronger than CO2, but this increases to 86 times stronger when considered over a period of 20 years. This shorter timeframe is what really counts, scientists say, given the urgency with which CO2 emissions need to be curbed to prevent catastrophic global warming.

As a result, the incorporation of accurate greenhouse gas emissions estimates was key to the creation of the HyroCalculator. That "required installing a global map of carbon density, figuring out the emissions from each country's electricity mix, and finding a formula for reservoir-based emissions that can work for any project," said Reid. "The difficulty with emissions points to the central challenge with any web-based analytical tool: precision versus practicality."

The Tucuruí dam spillway on Brazil's Tocantins River. International Rivers / Flickr

In the name of practicality and ease of use, the Hydrocalculator does make some minor concessions to accuracy. Emissions from turbines and spillways, for example, were excluded from this version of the tool, because there's greater uncertainty around these sources, said Vilela. As a result, the calculator's emission estimates will be conservative, for now, but CSF is planning to add these additional sources into future versions.

The HydroCalculator has been well tested. It has been used by CSF for some time, and other organizations, including a development bank and International Rivers, an environmental NGO, have also employed the tool in their research.

Sarah Bardeen, of International Rivers, said their staff has "found the HydroCalculator to be useful in assessing a [dam's] economic viability when we have limited information about a project."

"The HydroCalculator shows that hydropower is far from carbon-neutral, and helps users calculate a ballpark estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from a dam's reservoir," Bardeen added. "This is important, because it puts information about reservoir emissions into the hands of affected communities, who are often shut out of the opaque planning processes around hydropower projects."

The Santo Antônio dam on the Madeira River in Brazil, part of the Madeira Hydroelectric Complex.Brazil's Growth Acceleration Program / Flickr

Both Bardeen and the CSF team emphasize that the tool should not be used in isolation, but as part of a broader assessment process. "Hydropower is a notoriously complex and risky power source to build, and there really isn't a tool that can capture and show all the environmental, social and economic consequences of building a dam," Bardeen explained.

Assessing the tradeoffs of hydropower development should be done through "deep analysis of primary data and listening to the people who would be affected," agreed Reid. "The HydroCalculator just lets you take a first step along that path."

Major environmental risks of dams—such as the direct and indirect impacts to biodiversity, effects on aquatic and terrestrial wildlife connectivity, and reduction in a waterway's nutrient and sediment flow—along with the consequences to local communities, must all be carefully weighed against the benefits of a proposed dam. Though, at present, none of these risks are tallied by the Hydrocalculator. Still, the tool goes a long way toward empowering dam project-impacted communities, the experts said.

Belo Monte dam under construction in 2015.Pascalg622 under a CC BY 3.0 license

In the Amazon, where mega-dam projects are slated for many of the basin's rivers, scientists fear that harm from dams will be irreversible. There, Indigenous people and traditional river communities are fighting to protect their sacred lands and livelihoods. And untold numbers of species still not described by science are at risk.

"Communities protecting their lands and waters need all the help they can get to evaluate the impacts of proposed hydropower projects. In the Amazonian context, this tool is another arrow in their quiver," Bardeen said. "But bad hydropower projects go forward for many reasons—and in Brazil, corruption, graft and authoritarianism have the tendency to steamroll reason and science."

The global debate around hydropower "is likely to intensify as pressure grows to meet expanding electricity demand and rein in greenhouse gas emissions," Reid and Vilela concluded in their paper. Tools such as the HydroCalculator can help provide the knowledge needed to navigate that debate.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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