Brazil’s economic development has been underpinned by a diverse and – in a global comparison – unusual set of energy carriers, notably hydroelectricity and ethanol from sugar cane. Its energy mix makes Brazil one of the least energy-related carbon-intensive economies worldwide. Given that the country is fast becoming one of the world’s economic powerhouses, decision-makers need to understand the drivers underlying past and current carbon dioxide emissions trends. We therefore investigate a) which key long-term drivers have led to Brazil’s unique emissions profile, and b) the implications of these drivers for Brazil’s national policies. We show that Brazil’s emissions are growing mainly due to increasing individual standards of living, exports and population size, and that this growth is so far unchallenged by technological and structural improvements toward lower emissions intensities and more efficient production structures. As these trends are likely to continue amidst growing international pressure on key economies to reduce their carbon emissions, a decoupling of drivers from emissions is needed to simultaneously meet development and environmental goals.