News | Brazil / Paraguay - Socio-ecological Transformation - COP26 - Green New Deal - Climate Justice Is Hydrogen Really a Clean Energy Source?

New plans for the Brazilian energy network are rooted in the reproduction of environmental damage and rights violations


Wind energy is a key element in the production of hydrogen power. Foto: Instituto Terramar

While the world (or countries in the Global North) seeks alternatives in order to decarbonize the economy, Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, especially from the Global South, are already facing the consequences of the impacts caused by the technologies used in the production of renewable energy. The Brazilian coastal marine zone of Ceará, for instance, already produces evidence of the intervention—through the production of wind energy—on the ecosystems, and also from the testimony of the peoples and communities who live there.

Moreover, this debate is gaining momentum due to the advance of plans for the construction of plants that produce green hydrogen. Hydrogen is not a source of energy. In other words, it is a vector, a fuel. The extraction of that fuel can be made from ethanol.

Elisangela Soldateli Paim, the Latin America coordinator for the climate programme at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, spoke with Rogéria Rodrigues from the Instituto Terramar to acquire some data and learn about the experiences accumulated by the institute since its founding in 1993, as well as by her since she took on the position in 2002.

The Northeast Region of Brazil, among other characteristics, is known for its potential for the generation of wind and solar energy. In an international context of acknowledging environmental and climate issues, but also policies known as “decarbonization of the economy” (planned by some countries in the Global North), the region is seen as yet another site to potentially be transformed into a production hub, principally for the exportation of green hydrogen to meet foreign demand. From your experience within Terramar, how do you assess this context?

When we ponder the environmental issues involved—and their relationship with climate change—we remember that most of the impacts directly befall the populations with the least access to basic rights. The reflection we make on this “decarbonization of the economy” is that we cannot simply think of alternatives that reduce CO² emissions. Because, together with that, we need to think of how to build real economic sustainability in a fair and responsible manner. That is, one where the communities living in the farthest territories, for instance, are not a target of large-scale economic endeavours.

We are aware that the contamination of air, water, and soil is a consequence of the policies of development set by governments. For instance, the state government, while seeking to boost the economy of Ceará, has been encouraging the implementation of large-scale endeavours since the 1990s, with projects for the development of sectors such as mass tourism (Programa de Desenvolvimento do Turismo, or PRODETUR), shrimp farming, and wind farms.

It is important to highlight the Industrial Port Complex of Pecém, one of the projects that impacts the coastal zone of Ceará, due to the installation of highly polluting industrial and thermoelectric plants. The arrival of these ventures accentuated land and territory speculation—speculation which has intensified enormously since the beginning of the pandemic.

In relation to wind ventures, we affirm that there is no clean energy when the implementation is planned on the territories of traditional populations which will be highly impacted. These impacts could be seen, for instance, due to the lowering and salinization of the groundwater, the closing of water passages that feed marine life, the disorientation and death of migratory birds and bats which are important for environmental balance, or the rapid evaporation of dune aquifers caused by dune planning. The populations also record problems such as: structural cracks in the houses due to the transporting of heavy equipment; the siltation of ponds and planting areas, from which they obtain their food; and the suppression of vegetation that should otherwise guarantee food and water to native populations.

And, moreover, the social impacts: increases in prostitution, early pregnancy, youth drug addiction, and restriction of the population’s free movement within the areas in which they live, among other issues.

Those wind ventures, together with the production of photovoltaic energy, are the ones to provide energy for the project of producing green hydrogen. Therefore, it is hard to affirm that this will be “green hydrogen”, given the impacts on traditional territories which we have just described. Apart from that, we ought to consider sustainability in relation to the very technology used in transforming this “pseudo green energy” into hydrogen, from the amount of water used in the process of hydrolysis and in the conditions for the disposal of that water.

How do you analyse the national energy policy? Does that policy consider the insertion of hydrogen?

We know that the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) forecasts that, by 2025, six percent of the final global energy consumption will be associated with hydrogen. However, in Brazil, as a consequence of the energy policy, we have 53.9 percent of non-renewable sources and 46.1 percent of renewable sources. That makes us reflect on the distance to be covered to fulfil the agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, consequently, the challenge of rethinking that energy network.

In the midst of the debates on the generation of energy which we have been holding, at the level of the Northeast Region and Brazil as a whole, with partners from the Northeast energy network and the Frente por uma Nova Política Energética para o Brasil (Front for a New Energy Policy for Brazil), in regard to the impacts, we have observed mismatches in the approach to the theme of sustainability. One piece of evidence lies in the high level of centralization of the Brazilian energy policy, through the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME). There is a National Council which is merely positivist in nature, for there is no popular participation but, instead, a powerful lobby of companies and contractors. The context is one of expansion of the energy network which, in a contradictory manner, bets on the exploitation of oil, even when facing a scenario of global catastrophe.

The directives that champion the need for a growing use of renewable energies, to reduce environmental impacts, especially those that stem from the burning of fossil fuels, are in the following documents of the MME: Roteiro para a Estruturação da Economia do Hidrogênio no Brasil (Roadmap for Structuring the Hydrogen Economy in Brazil, 2005); and Programa de Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação para a Economia do Hidrogênio (Science, Technology and Innovation Programme for the Hydrogen Economy, or ProH2, 2002) of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). They both address the insertion of hydrogen into the Brazilian energy network. Another important directive is the promotion, by both government and private institutions, of studies and improvements in the infrastructure involved in the ProH2, through more investment in technology.

Although there is this proposal for the insertion of green hydrogen in the Brazilian energy network, we still do not perceive a real concern with the environmental issue as a whole. The numbers concerning energy expansion in Brazil point to a significant increase in the use of fossil fuels and uranium, for instance, without concern for exposing the major part of the population, most of all the traditional communities, to the environmental damage derived from that activity. When we confront the vision for the national policy of expansion of wind and solar energy with respect to the environmental agenda as an obstacle to development, they try to silence us more often than not because we stand for the maintenance of ecosystems and the ways of life of those populations. We have been insisting that there shall only be sustainable development if there is social justice, and non-polluting production methods and technologies that are accessible to the population.

Are there green hydrogen production projects being discussed and/or implemented in the Northeast and, specifically, in Ceará? If there are, which active parties and interests are key players in these processes?

Yes. The news published in the Diário do Nordeste newspaper, on 16 April 2021, reads:

According to the Secretary of Economic Development and Labour of Ceará, Maia Júnior, the energies that should gain market share from the disuse of oil, such as green hydrogen, are already arriving in Ceará as well. In February, the Executive Branch of Ceará signed a protocol of intention with the Australian [company] Energix for the construction of a fuel plant in Pecém, with an investment of BRL 5.4 billion. A second plant is also under negotiation and the memorandum may be signed by the end of the month. According to the Secretary, at least ten groups interested in investing in green hydrogen in the State have started talks.

We understand that green hydrogen represents one of the energy solutions, as a sustainable technology to reduce carbon emissions. However, the exploration model presented follows the same track as all of the other forms of exploration. That is, it does not consider the rights violations suffered by the populations affected by the production of the wind energy intended to serve this new fuel cell technology. Because of that, while there is all this expectation generated by the economic sector in Ceará, together with the State government, for the production of said “green hydrogen”, we are concerned about the expansion of onshore and offshore production of wind energy, and we still have the solar farms in the pipeline. There are at least four licensing applications for offshore wind farms being processed at the Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA).

The point is that these projects are planned to be installed in areas where small-scale fishing occurs, and there are no studies on the impact on marine nursery areas, a designation which applies to practically the entire coastal marine ecosystem to the west of Ceará.

The field of renewable energy production has been appropriated by market agents and large corporations as an instrument for the accumulation of capital, and to boost their legitimacy in the debate on climate change. What does renewable energy mean to Terramar?

To us, in the field of renewable energies, there is no truly clean energy. We say that because, for the assembly of each of these technologies, there is a demand for components which, in most cases, will come from mining and the exploitation of certain groups of human beings for their production.

To Terramar, it is necessary to think about a popular energy transition by means of which the populations can access the technologies, and master their production on a microscale. It is necessary to think about a solidarity-based and democratic model that involves people and makes them subjects in the processes, while giving them freedom and sovereignty to live in their traditional territories.

After all, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of these production models in the current energy network bring environmental racism directly into their activities. For instance, there are no rich people, or people with considerable purchasing power, who have been removed from their territories or who have had their ancestral and living heritage violated by large wind projects, since all these projects are skewed towards the traditional territories, generating territories of conflicts.

The violation of rights and territorial expropriation of the traditional communities affected by renewable energy projects in Ceará are well documented. In a scenario where there will possibly be the expansion of solar and wind farms to supply the hydrogen production chain, how can the existing processes of resistance be articulated and how can a higher degree of visibility—especially at an international level—be given to community ways of life? Ways of life that can even be used as a reference when facing the crisis of civilization we are going through.

For us, there is no readily-available recipe for facing the challenges posed in these times. We have to think about human existence itself, because the path is laid out by the very act of navigation. Although our team is small today, it is very dedicated and committed to keeping the constant flow of information up-to-date.

We consider it important to have access to knowledge and information pertinent to what these enterprises and their technologies are, and how they behave in certain territories. To provide knowledge is to empower populations. As well as the exchange of experience and the networking between territories and partners renewing hopes, it invites community members to hold steady in spite of so much adversity, and so many threats and violations of rights.

One strategy we consider healthy is not to silence our voices in the face of violations. For that, campaigns and complaints before the justice and human rights agencies have been essential in the face of the dismantling of policies to protect the environment and Brazilian citizens. For coastal populations, the challenge is to build strategies of denunciation on the international stage, which can create embarrassment for the state and those investors that have created this desperate situation in some territories. It is important to emphasize that the production of academic studies reinforces the existence and importance of these ecosystems as a space for the production of agroecological foodstuffs. Because 80 percent of the fish that arrives in the markets of urban centres comes from this small-scale fishing, and still most of the drinking water of Ceará is located in the aquifers of this coastal marine territory.

It is necessary to hope when faced with the situation as it stands; to believe in a revolution born from the small rural producers and fishermen, the quilombolas [Afro-Brazilian residents of quilombo settlements, which were initially founded by escaped slaves], and the Indigenous peoples, affirming the ways of life of these populations and building environmental justice.

How does the process and definition of the actions of the Terramar Institute and the dialogue with local communities take place?

We monitor the transformation of the coastal zone of Ceará and direct the work towards guaranteeing the rights of the coastal communities; that is, we work within the intersection between human rights and the environmental issue. Since the intensification of territories of conflicts with the arrival of the capitalist model of exploitation on a large scale, through mass tourism, shrimp farming (farms of exotic shrimp in captivity), and wind farm complexes, we have sought to identify the diversities, the specificities, and the differentiated impacts of pollution and of socio-environmental injustice.

From a direct presence in the communities, we structure our actions in the defence and affirmation of the traditional coastal territories. For instance, actions of: training and popular organization; support to local collective practices; or building qualifications and skills relevant to the environmental debate. In particular, we consider the political education of women and the young as fundamental to the democratization of social struggles, public policies, access to work, and daily life. Amidst the scenarios of socio-environmental conflicts, we recognize the marks of historical inequalities and injustice, of racial and ethnic discrimination, and, moreover, of the urgent need for the deconstruction of the cultures of violence, reproduced in the communities themselves, such as male chauvinism, homophobia, and transphobia.