Science, Society, Sustainability
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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. Mae-Wan Ho

A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here

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 [1]. 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.

Brazil produced 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 [2] (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) [3] 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 [6] (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 [5], 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 [4].

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 [7]. 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 year.

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 [8] (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 [7]. 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 [8]. Scientists are increasingly concerned about a likely threshold of deforestation beyond which the entire ecosystem could collapse and begin to die back [9] (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 [10] (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.


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