ISIS Report 18/12/06
Biofuels Republic Brazil
Brazil’s rapidly expanding biofuels industry pose serious threats
to the survival of people and planet. Dr.
referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details
Integrated bioethanol and biodiesel production
President Lula has recently inaugurated Barralcool, the first integrated
biofuels plant that will produce sugarcane-based ethanol and biodiesel from
oilseeds . Brazil’s bioethanol programme goes back at least
to the oil crisis in the 1970s, and has been the world’s most advanced biofuels
market for decades. There are currently nearly 300 sugar-ethanol mills in
operation, with 60 or more under construction.
Rising global demand for
biofuels has provided an opportunity, not only to expand its sugarcane ethanol,
but also to save its ailing soybean industry, by turning soybean oil into
another biofuel, biodiesel.
The soy sector is in its
worst crisis in decades, and the soybean crushing industry has been in serious
decline. Multinational corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge
have closed several crushing plants in the past year or so.
The new ethanol-biodiesel plant in Barra do Bugres, Mato Grosso, in the heart
of Brazil’s centre-west soybean belt, has been producing ethanol from surrounding
sugarcane fields for more than 20 years, but Dedini, a leading provider of sugar-ethanol
biodiesel and cogeneration plants in Brazil, constructed the integrated biodiesel
plant on the site, after investing 27 million Reals (US$12.5 million).
The Lula government recently passed legislation that will mandate a 2 percent
blend of biodiesel from oilseed crops like soybean, sunflower or castor beans
in all commercial sales of petroleum diesel by 2008 rising to 5 percent by 2013.
A few hundred filling stations already offer blends. Brazil has about 10 biodiesel
plants in operation and another 40 under construction.
Currently, about half of Brazil’s sugarcane crop has gone into bioethanol production
with the rest being refined into sugar.
Motorists today can choose
to fill up with 100 percent ethanol at half the price of gasoline at over
30 000 filling stations nationwide, or petrol blended with 20-25 percent ethanol.
Ethanol accounts for 40 percent of all non-diesel consumption.
15.9 billion litres of bioethanol in 2005, more than one-third of the world’s
supply and second only to the United States. Brazil’s bioethanol is the only
large-scale biofuel programme now able to expand without government subsidies.
US’ bioethanol from corn, in contrast, is heavily subsidized  (Biofuels for Oil Addicts, SiS 30).
Brazil is set to double its bioethanol production in the next decade, the futures
market rose by 62 percent in 2005, thanks to growing demand in the EU, US, China,
Japan, India and elsewhere. It is also poised to vastly expand biodiesel production
for export, using soya, palm oil and caster oil. Brazil is emerging as the biggest
of The New Biofuel Republics (SiS
30)  in the world, and getting bigger all the time.
Sustainable sugarcane biothanol?
Brazil’s bioethanol is often held up as a model of sustainable
biofuel production, and this appears to have been confirmed by a report released
in October 2006 by the International Energy Agency’s Bioenergy Task 40, which
analyses the international bioenergy and biofuels trade [4, 5]. The report
concluded that, in general the production of sugarcane-based ethanol as currently
practised in Brazil, is “environmentally sustainable.” Biofuels are rated
in terms of energy balance, the units of biofuel energy produced per unit
of input energy; and carbon saving, the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions
prevented by producing and using the biofuel instead of producing and using
the same amount of fossil fuel energy  (Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits,
this series). Sugarcane ethanol is estimated to have an energy balance of
a staggering 8.3 on average, but could be 10.2 in the best case; far outstrips
the energy balance of any other biofuel, especially those produced in temperate
regions. The carbon saving at between 85 and 90 percent, is also bigger by
a long way of any other biofuel.
The report, Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol , was commissioned by
SenterNovem, The Netherlands Agency for Sustainable Development and Innovation,
and carried out by the Copernicus Institute (University of Utrecht) and Brazil’s
State University of Campinas, Unicamp. The results are significant for Brazil’s
export of sugarcane ethanol, and Europe will be a main importer.
The relative success of
sugarcane bioethanol stems from the prolific growth rate of the crop in tropical
Brazil, and a closed cycle production process, where the energy
for refining and distilling comes from burning sugarcane residue, hence no
fossil fuels are needed. Refining and distillation are very energy intensive
especially for bioethanol.
But is it really sustainable
as claimed by the report? The report used a set of sustainability criteria,
drafted by a parliamentary Commission in The Netherlands, that are preliminary
in nature, with many uncertainties due to disagreements among the stakeholders.
The criteria include a carbon saving of 30 percent or more in 2007, increasing
to 50 percent or greater in 2011; provisions for protecting biodiversity in
sensitive areas, albeit rather weak; setting a limit of no more than 5 percent
conversion of forest to plantations within 5 years; no negative economic impacts
on the region or nation; compliance with welfare standards such as labour
rights, basic human rights, property and use rights, and anti-bribery laws;
compliance with environmental laws in waste disposal and management, and the
use of genetically modified organisms.
Among the main concerns
are ecological and social impacts, including food security. It is as yet unclear
how additional land use for sugarcane will impact on biodiversity, or compete
for land needed for growing food. The report did not deal at all with social
welfare, and that, in a country where human rights and land rights are still
problematic. There are also no considerations on health impacts to workers
and the general public.
The impact of intensive
sugarcane cultivation on soil organic carbon, particularly as the result of
changes in land use, has also not received due attention. A study published
in 1999 found a decrease in soil organic carbon of 24 percent over 20 years
when forest is turned into pastureland in Brazil. The remaining
47 t C per ha of pastureland was further reduced by 22 percent over the next
20 years when a sugarcane plantation was established on the pastureland .
Sugarcane encroaches on
the Amazon, but far more so on the Atlantic forest and the Cerrado, a very
bio-diverse and unique savannah-type ecosystem. Two-thirds of the Cerrado
have been destroyed or degraded . Sugarcane also does not provide home
for birds. If sugarcane cultivation were to expand, the outlook for the world’s
natural biodiversity would be grim.
A WWF report to the International Energy Agency in 2005 suggested that Brazil’s
bioethanol programme reduced transport emissions by 9 Mt a year, but 80 percent
of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions came from deforestation. A study found
that while a hectare of land in Brazil grows enough sugarcane to make ethanol
to save 13 t CO2 a year. But if natural forests were allowed to regenerate
on the same hectare of land, the trees would absorb 20 t of CO2 every
Soy biodiesel far worse
Soybean is certainly the most damaging choice – not just because it gives
very low energy balance and carbon saving – but because soya monoculture is
responsible for more Amazon destruction than any single other business, including
cattle ranching or logging  (Soya Destroying Amazon, SiS 20). It is linked to the destruction
of Brazil’s Atlantic forests.
Deforestation rates in the
Amazon had been coming down for eight years until 2003, when it suddenly increased,
almost solely due to soya monoculture. The business is largely controlled
by a company Gruppo Maggi belonging to the governor of the Amazon state Mato
Grosso, and the US corporation Cargill is the main exporter.
So far, soya is mainly grown
for animal feed to satisfy Europe’s demand for GM-free soya, and for US and
China. The soya-based biodiesel programme supported by President Lula’ government
is almost certain to accelerate the destruction of the Amazon forest.
The Enawene Nawe Indians’ land in Mato Grosso
is being rapidly cleared for soya plantations and cattle ranching . State
governor and soya baron Blairo Maggi, one of the world’s largest soya producers,
is planning to build hydroelectric dams on their land to provide energy to
the soya industry. He is also lobbying the federal government not to recognize
Indian land in his state.
Three-quarters of UK’s soybeans
came from Brazil in 2004. There are now only 420 Enawene Nawe Indians left. They are one of
the few tribes that eat no red meat, and depend on catching fish and collecting
honey from the forest to survive. Brazilian Indian organisations say that
under Lula’s government, demarcation of their land has almost ground to a
halt. Violence against Indians has increased and Indian health has seriously
deteriorated, with children dying of starvation at record levels. No wonder
Enawene Nawe Indians say, “Soya is killing
us”; and biodiesel from soya may well finish them off altogether.
Potentially catastrophic for global warming and biodiversity
The Amazon is one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks, and losing
that would greatly increase carbon emissions and contribute to warming the
planet by perhaps a further 0.6 to 1.5 C over and above the warming already
predicted by the IPCC for this century . Scientists are increasingly concerned
about a likely threshold of deforestation beyond which the entire ecosystem
could collapse and begin to die back  (Why Gaia Needs Rainforests, SiS 20). The reason is that much of the rainfall
that sustains the forest is recycled; water is absorbed by the trees and returned
to the atmosphere by evapo-transpiration. An estimated 7 trillion tonnes of
water are recycled, which helps to cool the atmosphere immediately above the
forests. The water cycle - which supports agriculture in the region and elsewhere
- could break down, and that could affect the US grain belt  (Why
the United States Needs the Amazon, SiS
20). Permanent drought over the Amazon basin may seriously reduce
the already diminishing global food supply, and at the same time send ever
larger amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere in a catastrophic upward
spiral of global warming that would despatch most species on earth to extinction,
including our own.