24 November 2019

IIASA and Brazil: A partnership to underpin systems analysis in the tropics

Options Winter 2019/20: The strong relationship that Brazilian and IIASA scientists have forged over the years is supporting a thriving research community exploring issues affecting the country with a view on informing policy decisions for sustainable development.

© Adam Islaam | IIASA

© Adam Islaam | IIASA

When Brazilian scientist Roberto Schaeffer visited Austria 18 years ago to learn about an energy mapping tool, he little knew what he had begun. In the ensuing years, the model flourished and has since been adapted for Brazil. It is now run by a team of 15 at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and government ministries, and non-governmental and international organizations also consult it to help weigh options for the country’s sustainable development.

The success of the Model for Energy Supply System Alternatives and their General Environmental impacts for Brazil (MESSAGE-Brazil) is ultimately due to the strong relationship that Brazilian and IIASA scientists have built, says Schaeffer.

That connection became official in 2011, when Brazil joined IIASA. Since then, joint systems analysis research has flourished, and some 20 Brazilian research organizations have collaborated on topics ranging from demographics to air pollution.

MESSAGE-Brazil, for example, now models land use ss well as energy, and has been renamed BLUES (Brazil Land Use and Energy Systems). Schaeffer’s group runs scenarios that include pesticide use, organic agriculture, and water consumption – and BLUES includes 10,000 different technologies ranging from concentrated solar power to different types of lightbulbs.

The model helped the Brazilian government decide on its carbon emission reduction promises as a party to the Paris Agreement and was used to test the consequences of a global fall in beef consumption for Brazil. Funded by the UN Environment Programme, the group has recently also been modeling which technologies are critical for Brazil to deliver on its varbon promises, and whether the country has the expertise to develop them. Schaeffer hopes this will eventually lead to targeted funding for their commercial development.

Key to the IIASA-Brazil relationship is the flow of high-caliber Brazilian undergraduates, PhD, and doctoral students to IIASA under a scheme financed by the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) — 18 scholars have visited the institute since 2017.

“The fellows are exposed to a highly internationalized and interdisciplinary environment that enriches personal, professional, and cultural perspectives, especially considering that the Brazilian institutions where the fellows come from are still working on their internationalization process,” says Mauro Luiz Rabelo, IIASA council member for Brazil and director of International Affairs at CAPES.

The fellows are exposed to a highly internationalized and interdisciplinary environment that enriches personal, professional, and cultural perspectives
Mauro Luiz Rabelo
IIASA Council member for Brazil

IIASA benefits too, he says: “Considering that Brazil has such a wide and diverse territory with a variety of cultures, people, fauna, and flora, the Brazilian fellows at IIASA certainly provide a rich contribution”.

Julian Hunt, who spent two years at IIASA as a postdoc with CAPES funding, became interested in modeling the flow of world rivers and analyzed flows around Brazil’s hydroelectric dams. He has shown that periods of drought in Brazil, and the accompanying decline in hydroelectric power generation, occur cyclically — every 10–15 years. Now he has quantified a possible solution: building a series of small, deep reservoirs to allow “seasonal pumped storage”, where water would be pumped to the reservoirs in times of plenty, or when wind or solar plants are producing in excess. In lean times, the water could then be released to generate electricity. According to him, the idea had currency 50 years ago but has fallen out of fashion.

Hunt valued meeting scientists at IIASA with other perspectives, methodologies, and technologies that have not been implemented in Brazil. "The main thing I learned is to apply my methodology globally,” he says.

Hunt believes that IIASA benefits from scholars’ desire to solve urgent practical problems back home.

Aline Soterroni, of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), has visited IIASA twice – both as part of its Young Scientists Summer Program and as a research scholar. She helped develop the Brazilian version of the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) – a well-known model that simulates the competition for land between agriculture, bioenergy, and forestry.

Soterroni relished the creative atmosphere at IIASA and says the Brazilian GLOBIOM adaptation was, uniquely, led by the target country (by INPE and the Institute for Applied Economic Research).

They have improved its baseline data and adapted it to reflect the boom in soy farming, as well as soy’s widespread no-tillage production system, which reduces carbon emissions from the soil. They also added forest restoration as a land use class, which is essential for modeling Brazil’s changing Forest Code — a law restricting deforestation by land-owners.

“It was impossible to do it without IIASA, but it was also important that it was us, Brazilians, identifying the major research questions and the scenarios that are relevant to our region and engaging with local stakeholders,” she says.

As well as helping, along with MESSAGE-Brazil, to determine Brazil’s intended carbon emission reductions, Soterroni’s group has used GLOBIOM-Brazil to show that surging demand for ethanol, and thus for more sugar cane plantations, could be reconciled with forest conservation by intensifying cattle ranching to release pasture for planting. The team has also analyzed what would happen if the moratorium on converting Amazon rainforest to soy plantations were extended to the Cerrado biome, a tropical savannah and little-known biodiversity hotspot that is rapidly being converted to soy and pasturelands.

For Schaeffer, constant interaction with IIASA is critical. "Most of the improvements that we have done in our models are very much a function of having PhD students spend some time at IIASA learning new approaches and then being able to come back and incorporate or develop those things into our own model,” he says.

For some of those students, the benefits have gone beyond the scientific: "The institute’s message really caught me,” says Camila Ludovique Callegari, who was a doctorate sandwich program fellow at IIASA. “To care about the world, to make more with less resources – it really inspired me in both my career and my personal life.”

By Aisling Irwin


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Last edited: 20 November 2019

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