Sustainable Biofuels: The Brazilian Experience and Opportunities Ahead

The Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) has sponsored, in partnership with the Wilson Center on the Hill and the Brazil Institute, a series of conferences over the growing importance and role of biofuels in the international market.  The conference, “Biofuels: Food, Fuel, and the Future?” was held in July to discuss the impact of ethanol production and development.  Following the conference, a subsequent publication of the same name was released, and in September, the event Classifying Biofuels Subsidies” focused on the global trade impact of ethanol production.

The following summary is from the Brazil Institute’s event on sustainable biofuels held on November 10th.  The video archive of this event, and the presentations discussed therein, can be viewed here.

On Nov. 10, the Brazil Institute hosted a seminar on biofuels, energy demands, and their implications for global climate change viewed from a Brazilian perspective.  Ambassador André Amado, undersecretary-general for energy and technology with the Ministry of External Relations, discussed the benefits of biofuels, most specifically sugarcane ethanol.

Biofuels have stimulated economic growth in rural areas, as sugarcane production has increased– creating 835,000 jobs, 95 percent of which are in the formal sector.  This expansion has also had substantial labor input, improving the standard of living for many rural laborers.  Also, ethanol production has proven not to require subsidies and can fill gaps created by other renewable energy sources.  Most importantly, increased production of ethanol has occurred alongside a substantial increase in food production, allaying fears that food production would be displaced the biofuels expansion.  To further prevent this, Brazil recently passed agro-ecological zoning laws, which vastly restrict the amount of land that can be used for sugarcane production.

Ambassador Amado pointed out that the potential benefits to be gained from increased use in biofuels are an environmental incentive: the use of sugarcane ethanol over the past 30 years has saved 850 tones of carbon from being emitted.  As demand for energy increases due to economic development, more renewable resources will be needed to meet this demand in a responsible manner.  The current world energy matrix is less than 10 percent renewable, whereas in Brazil it is closer to 50 percent.  Politically, the bulk of the world’s petroleum resources are controlled by a small number of countries, giving them an enormous amount of leverage over world energy prices – a potentially dangerous situation.  Since sugarcane can be grown in so many parts of the world (over 100 countries), increasing the number of producers would be geostrategically advantageous.  In conclusion, he pointed out the remaining barriers to bioethanol becoming a world commodity– chiefly, the lack of international cooperation and the threat to vested business interests that this new industry represents, namely the oil, food, and car industries.

“Meeting the goals of the Copenhagen agreement will require more than just transitioning to a low-carbon economy,” explained Dr. Suzana Kahn Ribeiro.  “It will also require negative emissions.” This process, also called carbon capture and storage, removes carbon from the atmosphere and from new emissions, reducing the amount already in the atmosphere.  Both processes, however, urgently require investment and priority adjustment, since current levels of greenhouse gas emission are unsustainable.  To meet the goal of temperatures rising less that 2° C by 2030, both direct (substitution of fossil fuels) and indirect mitigation will be needed, and both processes will be more effective the earlier they begin.  The developing world’s need for increased energy will have to be balanced, however, against the physical limitations of the atmosphere to absorb carbon.  These conflicting goals underscore the need for both a more renewable energy matrix and more efficient production practices that emit less at the global level.  Luckily, the potential for reducing carbon emissions, even in biofuel production, is great, so the problem is not intractable– especially since the technological capacity to absorb more carbon than is emitted already exists.

Dr. Isaías Macedo discussed the life-cycle of sugarcane. Even though sugarcane is water-intensive, it does not represent a threat to Brazil’s abundant water systems because it uses less than 1 percent of its reserves.  In addition to that, the sugarcane industry has developed techniques that grow cane using only recycled water and rainwater.  Brazilian states are also progressively lowering water intake limits by the industry. These new green protocols also require planters to reforest a certain percentage of land along the banks of rivers.  These protocols should prevent future problems, since currently only 1.5 percent of arable land in Brazil is used for sugarcane ethanol.  Interestingly enough, most of the land that has been appropriated for sugarcane planting has come from pastures, while meat exports have increased due to the intensification of cattle production.  Finally, the bagasse [the remains of the plant after it has been processed] has many interesting uses.  It is currently used to supply all of the electricity needed to run processing mills, making them energy-neutral.  Typically, a sugarcane ethanol plant uses only one third of the electric energy it generates.  Two thirds are sold to nearby power plants.  Bagasse is also an alternative to coal for generating electricity, meaning that sugarcane has the potential to create energy not only through sugarcane ethanol production, but also from burning the bagasse– making it a very rich source of energy.  As always, there remains a need for further research and further data analysis, especially as to the environmental effects of this new agricultural phenomenon.

By J.C. Hodges

Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute

Photo credit: David Hawxhurst, Wilson Center

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