Latin America renewable future.

It has been a good couple of decades for Latin America. Since 1990 the Latin American region has experienced an important growth and a great improvement in almost every metric used to measure the quality of life.

There had been an important poverty reduction, improvements in the public infrastructure, and great increases in the access to electricity and water and sanitation. All of this while the region continued with its rapid urbanization.

There are, however, many problems still persisting, and even some new ones created by this progress.

Greenhouse gases

There are two problems at hand, where the alternative energies could be just the answer we are looking for. First, along with the economic growth and poverty reduction there has been an important increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the region. Even though the region only accounts for a small proportion of the global emissions, its emissions keep growing and some Latin-American countries have per capita emissions comparable with those from high polluters.

In recent years Latin American economy has suffered some contraction, mostly due the falling international prices for many of its exportations. The long term tendency, however, is economical growth, and predictably this will bring an increase in the energy demand. There is a risk that this new demand is covered with dirty technologies, despite the viability of  better alternatives.

The region has an enormous potential for renewable energies, and some experts such as The Solutions Project had showed that we can perfectly cover our future energy demands from renewable sources, and with just a minimum share of mega dam hydropower on the mix.

Even though hydropower has been traditionally accounted as renewable energy, its benefits have been put to question in recent years, both because of its detrimental effects in biodiversity and because of the forced displacement of local populations. Recent studies even suggest that its GHG emissions could be as high as the emissions of thermoelectric plants.

Better access

We have seen some major improvements in the access to electricity in the region, with many countries approaching 100% coverage. There is however still millions of Latin Americans without access to electricity. This population is generally isolated and poor, hence making it more difficult to bring them accessible energy. The costs of expanding the grid are hardly justifiable for such small populations, and even though the grid was indeed expanded, the fixed costs that these new costumers would have to pay would be punitive for them.

The solar energy could be a godsend for these people.

Solar is just one among several alternatives of clean energy. Unfortunately, many of them are unapproachable for this particular case. Solar panels are small, easy to install and maintain, and its price is continuously falling as its yields keep increasing. Solar is the perfect choice for small isolated systems. Even if the price for energy generated unit is higher than the thermoelectric energy, the costs of expanding the grid will easily turn the solar option in the most financially sensible one.

New tools, such as drones and remote sensing satellites could make the design and implementation of these systems more accurate, prompter and even cheaper.

Latin America has still some tough road ahead to bring electricity for its entire population, but never before clean and accessible energy for all has been as attainable as now.

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The tough road ahead.

Some weeks ago I was invited to a forum about the compatibility of the free markets and a healthy environment. I honestly didn’t expect to have to defend the basic principles of Climate Change in such a forum, so imagine my disappointment when the first question was if we (me and the other panelists) really believed in Climate Change. I was about to respond when another panelist stepped forward and answered for all of us, with a simple: “Be serious, of course there is a Climate Change”.

The science around Climate Change is clear. Decades of measures proves that the climate is changing. The new IPCC report, due to be presented some weeks from now, will address that the human activity is most likely (95% of certainty) responsible for the change. Better science just confirm these assessments. Richard B. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former MacArthur Foundation fellow was also a well known skeptic. He conducted a long and meticulous study to discredit the IPCC findings. At the end of the study he had no other choice than to recognize the existence of a Climate Change and the importance to take action.

Either for journalistic integrity (if you believe in their good faith) or because of the oil industry lobbies, the popular media tends to give the same time to the scientists who defend and attack Climate Change science, so the people get the misconception that the scientific community is divided in this matter. That is not truth. The vast majority of the scientists are convinced of Climate Change. This point was proved by a recent article that reviewed 11.944 articles published between 1991 and 2011. More than 98% of these articles concluded that there is a Climate Change and that we are responsible for it (John Cook and others. Environmental Research Letters. May 2013).

But, if it is all so clear, why don’t we take action? Well, that’s a very complex question. The long time that will take until the effects are fully visible is clearly a disincentive. The ignorance and apathy are also important. But mostly is because we don’t fully understand the magnitude of the problem. The media throws us gigantic numbers about an upcoming economical crisis and diverse political problems, and we fall in the typical mistake to attend the urgent and forget the important.

Unfortunately the nature don’t stop giving us some incentives to take action. Europe had the worst floods in centuries, USA had the worst tornado season registered, and the changes in the rain patron are threatening South America harvests. The disasters will continue, and will only get worse.

We still have some time, a very small window of opportunity. We need to put the Climate Change in the focus of discussion, and we need leaders that take the difficult decisions that can save the future. It is a tough road, but we can make it.

For now, I subscribe the initiative of climatenamechange.org, and suggest that we start to name our natural disasters after our politicians, particularly those who refuse to recognize an undeniable fact.