Germany and Brazil – Two Very Different Pioneers of Renewable Energies

Seize the Opportunity Presented by Intergovernmental Consultations in Brazil to Boost Germany’s International Energiewende Policy!

By Dr Sybille Röhrkasten

This August, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and other ministers will travel to Brazil for intergovernmental consultations. They should seize this opportunity to breathe new life into cooperation on renewables under the German-Brazilian energy partnership. Closer cooperation with Brazil – a country that has been an important frontrunner of the global expansion of renewables – would give further momentum to Germany’s international Energiewende policy.

The German-Brazilian energy partnership was initiated in 2008. In addition to Brazil, the German government has established energy partnerships with Algeria, China, India, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Tunisia and Turkey. For the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, these partnerships are a central instrument of its energy-related foreign policy; they are intended to support the expansion of renewables and the spread of efficient energy technologies. To date, cooperation under the German-Brazilian energy partnership has been very halting. And dialogue has been especially hampered in the area of renewable energy. This may come as a surprise: renewables are, after all, an important component of both countries’ energy policies. Moreover, both countries see themselves as pioneers in using renewables and champion the expansion of renewables in their foreign policy.

However, the German and Brazilian governments have very different views on how to foster renewables in their own countries and on problems and solutions in international policymaking. I investigated these conflicting ideas in detail in my recently published dissertation, Global Governance on Renewable Energy. Contrasting the Ideas of the German and the Brazilian Governments. Bilateral cooperation is further impeded by the persistence of binary thinking in terms of ‘North’ and ‘South’ on both sides.

Energy transition – the German and Brazilian way

The expansion of renewables in Germany is driven by climate protection efforts and widespread scepticism with regard to nuclear power. With the Energiewende, Germany aims to completely transform its electricity supply: renewables are supposed to replace nuclear power and emissions-intensive fossil energy. The share of renewables has quadrupled since the introduction of the Renewable Energies Act in 2000. They now account for 27.8% of Germany’s gross electricity generation.[1] In the next ten years that share is supposed to rise to 40–45%, climbing to 80% by the year 2050. To achieve these targets, Germany is focussing on expanding its wind and solar capacities. As a project to fundamentally transform the electricity supply of a major industrial power in a shift to intermittent renewable energy carriers, the German Energiewende has been attracting a lot of international attention.

Brazil’s electricity supply has long been based on renewables. Indeed, at 75%,[2] the current share of renewables in Brazil’s energy mix is only 5% shy of Germany’s target for 2050. This can be explained by Brazil’s huge hydropower potential, which generates electricity at a relatively low cost. However, the share of hydro in electricity generation is set to drop in future. In the light of the severe droughts of recent years, Brazil wants to reduce its dependency on hydro. At the same time, it’s proving increasingly difficult to exploit the country’s remaining hydropower potential. In the process of diversifying its electricity supply, Brazil is focussing not just on renewables (bioenergy, wind and, more recently, solar), but also on fossil-based energy carriers and nuclear power. Representatives of the Brazilian government consistently point out that the share of renewables in the country’s electricity supply exceeds the global share and the average share of industrial countries many times over and that the emission intensity of Brazil’s electricity supply is very low in international comparison.

Brazil has pioneered an energy transition in the transportation sector – an area that is largely ignored in the German Energiewende debate. As far back as the 1970s, Brazil introduced a comprehensive programme to replace petrol with ethanol from sugar cane. Today, 95% of all new motor vehicles in Brazil can run on any mix of petrol and ethanol.[3] While an ethanol admixture of just 10% prompted fears of engine incompatibility in Germany, Brazilian motor vehicles – old and new – run on petrol with an obligatory 27% admixture of ethanol. Throughout Brazil, drivers also have the option of filling up with pure ethanol. Brazilian ethanol admixtures – which varied from 47 to 90% in the period from 2008 to 2014[4] – are the highest in the world.

How can the barriers to progress in the German-Brazilian energy partnership be overcome?

A working group on biofuels established under the German-Brazilian energy partnership has made very little progress to date. While the Brazilian side has been keen to demonstrate the achievements of the Brazilian ethanol sector, the German side has been more interested in scrutinising the sustainability of Brazil’s biofuel production. The fact that the sustainability concerns that predominate in German thinking on biofuels – clearing of the rainforest and the ‘food versus fuel’ dilemma – are, from a Brazilian point of view, hardly relevant to Brazil’s ethanol production also hasn’t helped. The soils of the Amazon rainforest are not suitable for growing sugar cane. This crop is mainly cultivated in south-eastern Brazil, far away from the Amazon. The ‘food or fuel’ debate implies that the cultivation of biomass to produce biofuels drives out food producers and ultimately leads to hunger. In the case of Brazil, a country with vast swathes of fertile land, these assumptions are misplaced. But this analysis is also deficient because it fails to take account of income poverty. After all, hunger is less the consequence of an absolute shortage of food than the result of a very inequitable distribution of food.

For Brazil, ethanol production is a source of national pride. At the same time, it represents an area where the country can distinguish itself as a frontrunner on the international stage. The Brazilian government suspects that with its sustainability demands, Germany is actually trying to protect its own biofuel industry from cheaper and more environmentally friendly competitors in Brazil. Brazilian government representatives believe that Germany is not willing to engage in an open dialogue on biofuels and that constructive cooperation is not possible in this area where Brazil is in the lead. That explains why Brazil has blocked the establishment of a working group on renewable energies in the electricity sector until now. Germany had intended to use this group to further dialogue on solar and wind energy – both areas where Germany has a lead.

The German government should make use of the intergovernmental consultations in August to overcome these barriers to negotiation (for more details, see my SWP Policy Paper). It should make it clear that the German-Brazilian energy partnership is not just about bringing German expertise and technologies to Brazil. Germany should rather show that it intends to integrate Brazilian expertise on renewables into their cooperation in future. Only then will Brazil be willing to strengthen the dialogue on solar and wind energy under the bilateral energy partnership. This step could also help to increase the political visibility of both countries’ bilateral development cooperation. In addition to its ethanol expertise, renewable energy auctions are another area where Germany could learn from Brazil. Germany is currently in the process of switching from feed-in tariffs to auctions in its promotion of renewables. Such auctions were already introduced in Brazil in 2009.

Advantages for Germany’s international Energiewende policy

Closer cooperation on renewables under the German-Brazilian energy partnership could also boost Germany’s international Energiewende policy. The shift to an electricity sector based on renewables will not be enough to ensure a globally sustainable energy supply. For this, the fossil-based energy carriers in the transportation sector will also have to be replaced. Here, Brazil’s experience can offer some solutions.

Germany’s international Energiewende policy will only succeed if it doesn’t merely impart German expertise on renewables but also integrates the knowledge and experiences of very different countries. This is a guiding principle of the work of our Transdisciplinary Panel on Energy Change at the IASS on the international dimension of the Energiewende. For example, together with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the German Devlopment Institute (DIE), we organised a workshop on Germany’s international Energiewende policy where we entered into dialogue with experts on renewables from North Africa.

While researching my PhD, I was frequently shocked to discover that binary ‘North-South’ thinking persists in international cooperation on renewable energies. The ‘South’ is typically seen as a beneficiary of a transfer of finance and technology, while the ‘North’ decides on the direction taken by cooperation. Countries like Brazil are questioning this power constellation and are no longer willing to play by the old rules. For Germany’s international Energiewende policy, it’s therefore essential to become familiar with the points of view and interests of these new players. Even if cooperation isn’t always easy.

This blog post was revised by the author at 2 pm on 23 July in order to make it clear that the German concerns regarding Brazil’s ethanol production are hardly relevant from a Brazilian point of view.


Photo: fotolia

[1] Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy 2015: Zeitreihen zur Entwicklung der erneuerbaren Energien in Deutschland, p. 38.

[2] Empresa de Pesquisa Energética 2015: Balanço Energético Nacional, p. 31.

[3] USDA Foreign Agricultural Service 2014: Brazil Biofuels Annual, p. 12

[4] USDA Foreign Agricultural Service 2014: Brazil Biofuels Annual, p. 7


  1. Cintia   •  

    While I do find bilateral cooperation on this topic interesting, I’m afraid many serious issues are left unaddressed. The article says that sustainability concerns such as “clearing of the rainforest and the ‘food versus fuel’ dilemma – are not relevant to the Brazilian context also hasn’t helped. The soils of the Brazilian rainforest are not suitable for growing sugar cane. This crop is mainly cultivated in south-eastern Brazil, far away from the Amazon”. Reading this is very upsetting as a Brazilian citizen. The Amazon is of course the biggest bioma in Brazil, but the Mata Atlantica (which is the one cleared for ethanol production and has been reduced to only 7% of its original size – is just as important as any other bioma (some people even argue it’s more important than the Amazon, since that’s where more than half of the Brazilian population live). The terrible social and working conditions of the people who do the sugarcane harvesting (“boias frias”) are just apalling (some are even “working” under semi-slavery conditions) – not to mention other impacts caused by the Brazilian agribusiness sector, such as excessive water consumption (Sao Paulo, as well as other Brazilian cities, is currently going through a water supply crisis).

    What to say, then, about the hydropower plants? Just to give one well-known example, the construction of the Belo Monte dam has taken the Brazilian government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for violating the rights of the indigenous population ( ). Environmental and social consequences of Brazilian hydropowerplants should not allow it to be called “clean” energy.

    I certainly hope Germany takes none of that as an example. Brazilian energy policy is only a source of pride for those of very disturbing character and should not be pursued by any country that respects the wellbeing of its citizens and future generations.

  2. Dr Sybille Röhrkasten Dr Sybille Röhrkasten   •     Author

    Dear Cintia,

    Many thanks for your comment. My main point is that sugarcane production for bioethanol does not take place within the Amazonas region – which is a common misunderstanding here in Germany. As my initial formulation was indeed not specific enough, I changed the wording in order to be more precise. In my policy paper for the SWP, I also refer to the working conditions and local environmental impacts, such as air pollution – to demonstrate that the sustainability concerns that are commonly brought forward in Brazil are different to the food vs. fuel debate and the clearing of the Amazonas rain forest. However, several Brazilian NGO representatives that I met during my research in Brazil highlighted that the Brazilian ethanol industry has nowadays higher social and environmental standards than the ones that are prevailing in Brazilian agribusiness in general. And I would like to make another point here: whenever we criticize biofuels we should not blind out the negative impacts of oil production. If we forget to talk about oil, well-intended sustainability concerns may even perpetuate our oil dependency – and here, nothing is gained.


  3. Pingback: International Energy Policy: Shifting Towards Renewables - IASS Potsdam Blog

  4. Pingback: Internationale Energiepolitik: Kräftegewicht verschiebt sich hin zu erneuerbaren Energien - IASS Potsdam Blog

  5. adilson de oliveira   •  

    Dear Sybille

    Your paper offers a nice,clear assessment of the distance the Brazilian and the German approaches to renewable energies. This distance has its historical roots in the driving forces that led Brazil and Germany to push the use of renewable in their energy matrix. In Brazil, the main driving force was the country large dependence of oil imports to be used in the transportation sector. The use of renewable in the power sector was and still is not perceived as a need. Indeed, the Brazilian establishment is committed to the construction of large hydropower plants in Amazonia The establishment can hardly understand and accept any the criticism to that decision..

    Cintia is absolutely right to point out that the idyllic presentation of the Brazilian renewable approach by its establishment is far from the reality, especially as far the work conditions in the sugar cane production that has not much changed in the last centuries.

    I believe that the energy cooperation between Germany and Brazil must drive its focus beyond the narrow view of increasing the share of renewable in the energy matrix. The transition to renewable energy will take decades and the secure supply of oi is essential for a safe, peaceful energy transition. Although there is a situation of over supply of oil in these days, a large share of it is sourced at quite unreliable places. Brazil has the oil resources to become a substantial supplier of oil to the German ( European) energy transition.

    s security of its

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