The final data on 2017 emissions, which Portugal’s authorities recently submitted to the United Nations, “are dramatic”, Francisco Ferreira, the president of Zero - Sustainable Terrestrial System Association told Lusa News Agency after analysing the figures.
“The drought, fires and the use of coal in the production of electricity led to a set of records that we do not want to be repeated in the future,” Ferreira said.
In 2017, a severe drought – itself believed to be in part a consequence of climate change - contributed to the occurrence of two huge forest fires and a greater reliance of Sines and Pego thermal power plants to generate electricity, as opposed to hydro-electric plants.
“We saw almost 540,000 hectares of forest land burned, about 330,000 corresponding to inhabited forest - well above what had been recorded in 2003 and 2005,” Ferreira noted, citing the two previous worst years for fires.
He explained that soils and forests store huge amounts of carbon that is normally released into the atmosphere in fires.
“These areas no longer have their usual role as [carbon] sinks, that is, in counteracting the emissions that exist through human activities such as energy [generation], agriculture and waste,” he said.
On analysing the data, Zero had observed “five unfortunate records in 2017”: it was the year with the highest emissions associated with land and forest use since records on this began in 1990, with net emissions of 7.2 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. Until then, from 2006 to 2016, Portugal had been able to remove from the atmosphere an annual average of 10 million tons of CO2.
The year 2017 also was the year since 1990 with the third highest emissions of greenhouse gases, taking into account emissions from agriculture and forest. The worst years were 2003 and 2005, with 77.8 million tons of CO2 equivalent.
According to Zero, 2017 was also the worst year of this decade in terms of emissions associated with the production of electricity, due to the extensive use of coal in the thermal plants at Sines and Pego, with 12.2 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for 63% of total emissions associated with power generation.
There are, said Ferreira, two “absolutely crucial” priorities for the future: “To take concrete steps to safeguard the soils and foster a resilient forest” and to abandon well before 2030 the generation of electricity using coal, while moving to expand the use of renewable energies and improve energy efficiency.
Asked if it is possible for a similar situation to arise as in 2017, the Zero president stressed that “unfortunately the trend is that droughts become more frequent and more dramatic” and that if there is no alternative way to produce electricity and coal use in plants is not discouraged, power plants will continue to produce “plenty of emissions”.
It is, he declared, “essential that we do everything not to repeat what happened in 2017.”