Brazil’s Ethanol: ‘Food Vs Fuel’ or ‘Food and Fuel’?

Brazil’s scientific community is “scoping out” the long-term macro implications of the nation’s alternative fuels programme.

For an update on this story  click here for a review of the Biofuels and Sustainability Report launched in  June 2015. This  779 page report  draws on the input of 100 scientists in 24 countries, presenting recommendations  on all aspects of  biofuels production, including land use, climate change implications, social policies and human impacts.

The bio-energy industry and its agribusiness partners have long occupied a key place in Brazil’s economy thanks to its four decade-old ethanol fuel programme.

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Now this fast-growing industry’s global impacts in terms of biodiversity, climate change and water usage are being ever more closely monitored, it is engaging in ever-closer dialogue with research scientists.

Some , like University of  Campinas (Unicamp) Professor Luís Augusto Barbosa Cortez, believe that biofuel production could strengthen both economic development and food and energy security, mainly in Latin American and African countries.

“I make this affirmation based on Brazil’s experience. The reason for the success of the Brazilian model, which combined sugar and ethanol production, was mainly the dynamic relationship between the research and production sectors,” said Cortez  in September at a FAPESP conference in London.

Although it may seem to foreigners that Brazilians live in areas surrounded by sugarcane, Cortez said, the truth is that the plantations dedicated to ethanol production occupy only 0.4% of the country’s landmass and have never presented a threat to food production.

One driver for this is the global oversight of UNESCO and its SCOPE reports on energy and water use. In December 2013  scientists will gather at  UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to discuss a programme called Rapid Assessment Process SCOPE Bioenergy & Sustainability.

Under the auspices of SCOPE, UNESCO has been generating  policy briefs since 2009. You can review one on biofuels  by clicking here.

The Paris conference will review and compare the results from  Brazilian bioethanol, American bioethanol, Argentinian biodiesel, European biodiesel and Malaysian biodiesel.

With global bioethanol and biodiesel production expected to rise from the present 140 billion litres to 221 billion litres in 2021 (an estimated 60% rise), the potential for misunderstandings between the industry, conservation volunteers and the scientific community is considerable.

Which is why Brazil’s industry is pressing its case with the scientific community at a preparatory meeting to be held in São Paulo 18th November, at which influential academics will present their views on where the fast-growing “Biofuels Vs Food Security” debate is heading.

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Former energy minister José Goldemberg and its best-known pioneering researcher into Brazil’s energy matrix, will head the line-up at energy research at a conference entitled “Bioenergy and Sustainability,” sponsored by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

Other speakers are Paulo Eduardo Artaxo Netto (University of São Paulo), Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira (UNIFEI) and Glaucia M. Souza head of FAPESP’s BIOEN programme.

The conference will bring together research scientists from three of FAPESP’s core programmes. These are Biodiversity (BIOTA); Bioenergy (BIOEN); and Climate Change (PFPMCG). Also present will be Reynaldo Victoria (University of São Paulo) and Carlos Joly (University of Campinas).

You can find out more about the conference by clicking here.

With decreasing oil reserves and increasing fossil fuel prices, bioenergy is a promising alternative. Advantages of biofuels can include a positive energy balance, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and indirect effects such as rural development.

Studies based on lifecycle analysis conclude that when ethanol from sugarcane is used to replace fossil fuels in transportation, a substantial reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions may result (from 80% to greater than 100% savings).

Biomass can also be used to generate electricity with electric vehicles presenting several advantages over combustion engines. Wood, cellulose and biofuel generation of electricity and stationary generation of energy can be very efficient and is also being implemented as an option.

Since 2007, there has been a 109% increase of global biofuel production. World projections from OECD/FAO indicate further increases in bioethanol and biodiesel production from the present 140 billion litres to 221 billion litres in 2021, corresponding to a 60% increase. This rise in production must be accompanied by studies and analysis of all the associated implications and environmental impacts.

There’s little scientific doubt that the development of refinery systems that incorporate first, second and third generation fuel production alongside co-generation of electricity in conjunction with bio-based chemicals promises to aggregate value, can and have increased the efficiency of co-product generation, and help to mitigate carbon emissions from the fossil fuels they replace.

Critical factors such as water use by different types of biofuel are coming under the spotlight — and Brazilian ethanol to say nothing of soybeans)  has an insatiable thirst for this resource.

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So  the São Paulo conference has its eye on the future and will ask: how far can the bioenergy industry go? What are the limits that need to be faced for agriculture and biofuels?

What are the special problems of biofuels vis a vis agricultural products in general?

In the run-up to the SCOPE review, the conference promises to revisit recent developments in the biofuel industry and come to an assessment of current technologies and practices. These cover: air quality impacts, GHG emissions and mitigation, water use, nutrient cycle, the effects on biodiversity, as well as the social impacts.

Changes in land use change have undoubted impacts on biodiversity, biogeochemical cycling and hydrology. Biodiversity has a critical role underpinning ecosystem functioning, the delivery of ecosystem services, and hence the human life support system.

The conference will hear that land use changes linked to biofuel production must also be assessed in this perspective, considering that some countries where biofuel production may be stimulated are highly diverse.

As trade and tariff changes promise to eventually make possible a global biofuel market, it will also become possible to assess and compare which biofuels offer advantages and which are most advantageous in terms of their social, economic and environmental impacts.

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Of course, intangible factors such as public perceptions of which biofuels technologies or industries are best-placed to serve society, should be included in the mix as well.

Technologies that lead to less pollution, lower energy consumption and decreased greenhouse gas emission for fuel production will be evaluated regarding their economic feasibility, the industry capacity for their implementation in scale and the short and long term impacts on the environment, human health and generation of wealth.

Above all, biomass production systems used around the globe will have to be assessed according to their sustainability credentials.

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