Tropical hydropower in the clean development mechanism: Brazil’s Santo Antônio Dam as an example of the need for change


When carbon credit is granted for projects that would occur irrespective of any subsidy based on mitigation of global warming, the projects generate “hot air,” or credit without a real climate benefit. This is the case for tropical hydroelectric dams, which are now a major destination for funds under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The countries that purchase the credit generated by dams can emit more greenhouse gases without their being offset by genuine mitigation. The limited funds available for mitigation are also wasted on subsidizing dams that would be built anyway. Tropical dams also emit substantially more greenhouse gases than are recognized in CDM accounting procedures. Tropical hydroelectric emissions are also undercounted in national inventories of greenhouse gases under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, giving them a role in undermining the effectiveness of as-yet undecided emission limits. Brazil’s Santo Antônio Dam, now under construction on the Madeira River, provides a concrete example indicating the need for reform of CDM regulations by eliminating credit for hydroelectric dams.

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The author’s research is supported exclusively by academic sources: Conselho Nacional do Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq: Proc. 305880/2007-1; 304020/2010-9; 573810/2008-7; 575853/2008-5) Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Amazonas – FAPEAM (Proc. 708565) and Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA: PRJ15.125).

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Correspondence to Philip M. Fearnside.

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Policy relevance

Hydroelectric dams have become major recipients of CDM funding, and the case examined here provides a concrete example of a widespread global problem. The CDM “pipeline” now has 2049 dams in different stages of the approval process. These dams are not additional, as they are being built at a rapid rate by countries such as China, India and Brazil independent of any subsidy for supposed mitigation benefits. The countries that purchase the credit generated by dams can emit more greenhouse gases without their being offset by genuine mitigation. The limited funds available for mitigation are also wasted on subsidizing dams that would be built anyway. In addition, tropical dams emit greenhouse gases despite CDM regulations allowing zero emissions to be claimed by many dams (including the case examined here).

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Fearnside, P.M. Tropical hydropower in the clean development mechanism: Brazil’s Santo Antônio Dam as an example of the need for change. Climatic Change 131, 575–589 (2015).

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  • Clean Development Mechanism
  • Global Warming Potential
  • Clean Development Mechanism Project
  • Carbon Credit
  • Carbon Project