Tropical Dams are a False Solution to Clean Energy and Climate Change

The statement that tropical dams provide clean energy is a myth. A recently published report in Nature Climate Change warns that dams in the tropics emit a much great amount of greenhouse gas emissions than their temperate counterparts. The main sources of emissions come from the release of carbon from soil carbon stocks and dying vegetation when the reservoir floods and the release of methane from the decay of organic matter at the bottom of the reservoir. Read more about the dangers of building tropical dams in Brazil and Borneo below!

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Tropical dams are a false solution to climate change
May 27, 2012

Lake Balbina, a man-made reservoir created to supply hydroelectric power to the city of Manaus in Brazil. The Balbina dam in Brazil flooded some 2,400 square kilometers (920 square miles) of rainforest when it was completed. Phillip Fearnside, author of a new Nature Climate Change editorial, calculated that in the first three years of its existence, the Balbina Reservoir emitted 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. (Photo courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)


Tropical dams emit considerably more greenhouse gas emissions than their temperate counterparts yet are being treated as a solution to climate change, warns a report published in Nature Climate Change.

The problem, argue Philip Fearnside and Salvador Pueyo, is the result of errors in calculations by energy companies. The authors single out ELETROBRÁS, a Brazilian energy giant that is in the midst of a dam-building spree in the Amazon.

“Various mathematical errors have resulted in Brazil’s electrical authorities estimating the magnitude of emissions from reservoir surfaces at a level of only one-fourth what it should be,” write Fearnside and Pueyo, who note that ELETROBRÁS’s estimates should be 345 percent higher.

“The myth can no longer be sustained that tropical dams produce clean energy,” said Fearnside.

Dams in the tropics have two principle greenhouse gas emissions sources: carbon released from soil carbon stocks and dying vegetation when the reservoir is flooded and methane formed where organic matter decays under low oxygen conditions at the bottom of the reservoir. Methane release is facilitated by a dam’s turbines, which usually draw from the bottom of the reservoir.

“The reservoir’s function in transforming renewable carbon [from algae and plankton] into methane gives it the role of a methane factory, continuously removing carbon from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and returning it as methane, with a much greater impact on global warming.”

Fearnside and Pueyo highlight the urgency of the issue by noting that Brazil plans to add 30 dams in the legal Amazon by 2020, including the controversial Belo Monte dam which will flood tens of thousands of hectares and displace more than 20,000 people, including indigenous communities. Meanwhile ELETROBRÁS aims to build more than a dozen dams in Peru and other Amazonian countries.

New dams aren’t just limited to the Amazon. Countries in the Mekong region are building dozens of dams, while Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo aims to build a series of rainforest dams on lands used by traditional forest people.

It is possible to reduce the climate impact of a tropical dam by minimizing the size of its reservoir and capturing methane emissions. Yet neither of these fixes address social conflict that often arises from forced displacement in dam catchments.

CITATION: Philip M. Fearnside and Salvador Pueyo. Greenhouse gas emissions from tropical dams. NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE | VOL 2 | JUNE 2012