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A History Lesson on the World’s “Most Successful Biofuel Industry”

By Leticia Phillips posted Oct 21, 2013
The 40-year anniversary of 1973’s OPEC oil embargo is an important milestone in the world’s transition toward renewable sources of fuel. Many media outlets and respected energy leaders have been looking back over the past four decades, searching for lessons learned.

The 40-year anniversary of 1973’s OPEC oil embargo is an important milestone in the world’s transition toward renewable sources of fuel. Many media outlets and respected energy leaders have been looking back over the past four decades, searching for lessons learned.  Among the best retrospectives I’ve read is a feature story in E&E News’ ClimateWire – a respected policy-insider publication headquartered here in Washington – that recounts how price spikes and fuel shortages prompted a renewable fuels revolution in Brazil and helped create “the most successful biofuel industry in the world.”

This “Brazilian experience” with renewable energy and sugarcane ethanol reads like a primer on how stable policy and investment in new technologies can fuel a green economy while cutting emissions and dependence on foreign oil. Today, sugarcane ethanol has replaced almost 40% of Brazil’s gasoline demand while cutting nearly 200 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

The full ClimateWire article is an excellent read, and a few key excerpts jump off the page to underscore the power of clean and renewable fuels:

  • Stable government policy was necessary at first – Brazil initially relied on government mandates to start the transition away from gasoline. By mandating ethanol blending in gasoline, requiring installation of pumps dispensing pure ethanol, funding research and development, and encouraging carmakers to build vehicles that could run on ethanol, sugarcane ethanol became a reality virtually overnight.

“By 1977, gasoline-ethanol blends had arrived at the pump. The sugarcane industry invested in new fields. New ethanol mills dotted the landscape. The World Bank and national financial institutions structured a financing system to support the investment.”

  • Sudden policy changes threatened growth – When Brazil transitioned to a democracy and the price of oil dropped in the 1980s, the national government considered dropping ethanol support, threatening a fast-growing industry even though consumer demand was clear.

“The government could not shut it down in one step because so many people had ethanol cars…there was a lot of tension between fiscal pressure and the number of cars in the street.”

  • But stable technology investments saved the day – Even though Brazil’s cut funding, automakers maintained investments in new ethanol vehicle technologies. By the time oil prices rose again in the early 2000s, flex-fuel vehicles were ready to meet market demand.

“The decision on which fuel people would use was transferred from the government to consumer…Flex-fuel vehicles rapidly became the best-selling cars in Brazil.”

  • Brazilian consumers have real options at the pump – The combination of technological investments, environmental and economic benefits, and steady government policy helped create a booming domestic biofuels economy and holds lessons for America’s policymakers.

“’We need to focus on being as smart as the Brazilians,’ R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA and chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in a discussion on energy security and independence.”

“Because the United States had not widely encouraged the development of flex-fuel vehicles, the country now faces the possibility of a blend wall: too much ethanol and not enough gas tanks to take it…The goal for the United States shouldn’t be to completely displace oil, experts said, but to encourage a greater mix of fuel sources.”

Indeed, as debate over the future of advanced biofuels policy intensifies, it’s important to remember that a stable Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) has encouraged advanced biofuels use in the U.S. while driving innovations in renewable fuels that boost American economic growth and energy security while cutting emissions.

Brazil will continue to be a strong, dependable partner helping America meet its clean energy goals.  And Brazilian sugarcane producers will continue to play an active role in the RFS rulemaking process serving as a source for credible information and analysis about the efficiency and sustainability of sugarcane ethanol.

UN food meeting: Let’s not forget the positive role biofuels can play in promoting development

By Géraldine Kutas posted Oct 17, 2013
The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) met last week in Rome and, not surprisingly, biofuels were again at the centre of a hot debate. Governments, industry, civil society and academics all represented at the meeting could agree on an overall mild conclusion which asks for further assessment, given the very controversial topic to which they were confronted.

The United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS) met last week in Rome and, not surprisingly, biofuels were again at the centre of a hot debate. Governments, industry, civil society and academics all represented at the meeting could agree on an overall mild conclusion which asks for further assessment, given the very controversial topic to which they were confronted.

In the UN’s words, the CFS recognizes that biofuels development “encompasses both opportunities and risks in economic, social and environmental aspects, depending on the context and practices” and encourages all stakeholders to help countries assess the impact of their biofuel policies. This only demonstrates that the overall dimension of biofuel production is yet to be fully captured and this gives stakeholders the opportunity to show that not all biofuels policies have negative impacts, that good examples of a fair balance between food and fuel production exist and that best practices should be incentivized. Let’s hope that this further assessment phase will help to develop a less black and white approach to biofuels.

Brazil is one of these good examples. Brazilian Sugarcane Ethanol (BSCE) is classified in places like the U.S. as an advanced biofuel and the land producing ethanol also produces sugar. In fact, in the last 20 years the volume of sugarcane harvested has tripled to respond to the growing demand for ethanol and sugar, but food production hasn’t dropped at all. Over the same period, grains production has also almost tripled in Brazil. Production of BSCE only uses 0.5% of Brazil’s total area and the agro-ecological zoning regulations limit the land used for sugarcane to 7.5% of the Brazilian territory.

In conclusion, the CFS recognized the complexity of the links between biofuels and food security and the need to distinguish between short-term and long-term impacts, despite the intense reaction of Oxfam at the end of the meeting last Friday, which argued that “Unfortunately, powerful countries refused to act despite the evidence and preferred to put biofuel industry interests ahead of peoples’ right to food”.

Unfortunately, the CFS missed the opportunity to recognize the positive role that bioenergy production has played, particularly in minimizing the downward slope of agricultural investments and commodity prices. After all, investments in agriculture generate more economic growth in developing countries than investments in any other sector.  In addition, access to energy is a condition to produce food: the more sustainable the energy produced and used, the more sustainable the food production will be!

The CFS will meet again next year and according to the action points agreed, FAO will have to come up with proposals on “contingency plans to adjust policies that stimulate biofuels production and consumption when global food markets are under pressure and food supplies are endangered” as well as “provide toolkits to device and assess integrated food security and sustainable biofuels policies”. The newly elected Chair, Gerda Verburg, the Dutch Ambassador to UN agencies in Rome, said she wants to keep negotiating with all the stakeholders represented in the Committee and focusing on the outreach for the implementation of the decisions already taken.

At UNICA, we will continue our efforts to spread the word on how Brazil has emerged as a leader in providing both food and energy from its diversified and efficient agricultural sector.

For more details on the CFS conclusions, see the final report (press release) and the HLPE study (Executive Summary).

The issue was also covered by The Guardian, Oxfam, Reuters and Ethanol Producer Magazine

New Ecofys study guts "land grabbing" charges against EU biofuel policy

By Géraldine Kutas posted Oct 03, 2013
Ecofys, a well-respected Dutch consultancy, is out with a new study that effectively eviscerates the association of biofuels with “land grabbing,” that favorite charged-phrase NGOs pedal that industry is in the business of pushing locals off their land. The meaty conclusion from Ecofys: “At best, only 0.5% of all deals in the Land Matrix concern land grabs for EU biofuels.”

Ecofys, a well-respected Dutch consultancy, is out with a new study that effectively eviscerates the association of biofuels with “land grabbing,” that favorite charged-phrase NGOs pedal that industry is in the business of pushing locals off their land.

The meaty conclusion from Ecofys: “At best, only 0.5% of all deals in the Land Matrix concern land grabs for EU biofuels.”

Bear in mind, Ecofys is an environmentally minded consultancy, if you will, that does studies for the European Union, industry, and even NGOs. This particular study was commissioned by ePure, the European Ethanol Producers.

The Ecofys study says that biofuels used in the EU market basically do not come from feedstocks produced from “grabbed” lands, undermining among NGO arguments against EU biofuel policy is that biofuels “take land away” from food production and rural communities.

The study cross checked a number of entries in the Land Matrix of the International Land Coalition. Although the best informed global database on land deals, the Land Matrix “is based on reports from the media and NGOs which both often overestimate scale,” says Ecofys.

Nonetheless, the matrix had a total of 617 deals in its system, covering around 38 million hectares, as of March 2013.

This extract lays out the message Ecofys conveys with this study: “Of these 617 deals, we assessed 66 deals, which sum up to 25.8 Mha, or 67% of the total acreage in the database. This includes the 50 largest deals around the world, as well as the 5 largest deals given per sub-region in the Land Matrix. We checked these deals by collecting all possible and available information about these deals on the internet and sometimes from private investigation, by checking information with networks within the respective countries.”

What does Ecofys have to say about NGOs wild claims? “Action Aid claims that ‘it is estimated that biofuels have been involved in at least 50 million hectares being grabbed from rural communities.’ This is 28 times (!) our findings of about 1.8 Mha. The total extent of land deals that can maximally be connected to the EU biofuels policy in past and until 2020 is probably another ten times smaller.” Here is the latest report on social impact of EU biofuel policy by Action Aid.

Finally, the study argues that the voluntary schemes introduced in the framework of the so called RED (EU Renewable Energy Directive) actually helped the development of better regulation in third countries on social and economic aspects of biofuels production. A very successful example is Bonsucro, The Better Sugarcane Initiative, to which UNICA is member and which certifies -- according to EU standards -- 29 Brazilian mills, covering 6.5% of the total Brazilian sugarcane area and more than 2 billion liters of sugarcane ethanol.

The Ecofys study looks at the effect of the EU policy promoting biofuels, hence starting from 2009. It is worth to notice that from 2008, ethanol exports from Brazil to the EU considerably decreased as the graph here below shows (from 1,661.4 million liters in 2008 to 97.21 million liters in 2012); therefore there is clearly no connection between land “grabbing” and increasing demand and exports for biofuels to EU in the case of Brazil.

EU Total Ethanol Imports

For more, find the Ecofys report here. Pangea, which represents pan-African bio-energy interests, produced a short take on the report.

Looking forward to more reactions to this report.

Our Authors

 

Géraldine Kutas, Head of International Affairs & Senior International Adviser to the President of UNICA Géraldine Kutas
Head of International Affairs & Senior International Adviser to the President

 

Leticia Phillips, Representative-North AmericaLeticia Phillips
Representative, North America

 

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