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What Place in Our Energy Future?

(Released April 2009)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Sugar: A Burst of Energy for Brazilian Ethanol


Brazil has solved a conundrum that continues to plague the United States: energy independence. With its huge production of sugar-based ethanol, the result of a program that began some 30 years ago, Brazil now exports as much oil as it imports (Reel). This is largely because sugar cane is far more efficient at making ethanol, since "unlike corn, in which the starch in the kernel has to be broken down into sugars with expensive enzymes before it can be fermented, the entire sugarcane stalk is already 20 percent sugar-and it starts to ferment almost as soon as it's cut. Cane yields 600 to 800 gallons (2,300 to 3,000 liters) of ethanol an acre, more than twice as much as corn" (Bourne). And, around the world, sugar has tremendous room for growth; "residues from sugar cane production and processing represent a vastly underutilised energy resource" (UN 16). Brazil has led the way but other countries, such as Australia, are quickly following the sugar ethanol boom.

Cutting sugar cane in Usina Bonfim in Guariba, Brazil, 2008.

President Lula da Silva
Brazilian president Lula da Silva holds clean diesel fuel.
Sugar based ethanol also seems to be effective at reducing climate change. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) notes that Brazil's sugar based ethanol is "leading to GHG emissions reduction of at least 80% compared to fossil fuels" (Europe Info). However indirect land use must also be accounted for. The Amazon, a vast reservoir of irreplaceable wildlife that sequesters huge amounts of greenhouse gasses, is rapidly being cut down. A Nature Conservancy Study "found that for every 10,000 square metres of Brazilian rainforest cleared . . . over 700 tonnes of CO2 would be released." The great bulk of rainforest damage, however, does not come from ethanol production. Indeed, in Brazil "the vast majority of the sugar crop is grown thousands of miles away from the [Amazonian] forest, in São Paulo state or the north-east" (Preto). Furthermore, the amount of land devoted to ethanol crops is tiny compared to the amount devoted to beef cattle. Still critics worry that ethanol use will drive other agricultural uses elsewhere, eventually harming the Amazon.

Beyond its probably low environmental impact, Brazil's sugar cane has also been exempted from the blame for food price increases, "because sugar cane production has grown fast enough to meet both the demand for sugar and ethanol" (Mitchell). With its great success, Brazil would like to expand its ethanol production into the U.S. market, but a 54 cents per gallon tariff is preventing this. How much of a model Brazil is for ethanol use elsewhere remains to be seen; it depends largely on specific agricultural use and environmental conditions, as well as policy decisions.

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