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IPCC adopts a more nuanced approach and recognize benefits of biofuels

By Géraldine Kutas posted Apr 17, 2014
It’s good to see that a highly regarded institution, like the United Nations, has just released a new report that has the courage ‎to simply follow the empirical evidence about the benefits of responsibly produced biofuels.

It’s good to see that a highly regarded institution, like the United Nations, has just released a new report that has the courage ‎to simply follow the empirical evidence about the benefits of responsibly produced biofuels. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has taken an empirically sensible-based approach this time towards biofuels and recognizes that they can contribute to climate change mitigation, provided that some good practices are put in place. It adopts a much more nuanced approach to biofuels – an approach that I have been defending since the beginning of the discussion on ILUC – arguing that biofuels may have from 30 to 90% GHG emission reduction than fossil fuels (per kilometre travelled, Chapter 8), but acknowledging that public policies need to be determined on a case by case basis to take into account the specificities of different biofuels and possible direct and indirect LUC effects.

In fact, some biofuels (conventional and advanced) can be more or less well-performing in terms of GHG emission reduction and this needs to be evaluated in a more balanced way than the black and white approach proposed by the Commission with the cap on conventional biofuels. As I said in several other occasions, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol records excellent performances even though it is a so-called first-generation biofuels.

Additionally, the use of biofuels in transport, as a climate change mitigation measure, is mentioned in the report as a mean to reduce oil dependence and thus increasing energy security, which is definitely a key concern at the moment for the European Union.

Quite interestingly, the IPCC's report makes two important points. First, it refers to the European Union policies on biofuels, claiming that the much contested Fuel Quality Directive is actually a “durable framework” and provides “flexibility to industry in determining how best to reduce fuel carbon intensity” (Chapter 8), just right now that the EU Commission proposed to get rid of it! Secondly, it expresses some doubts on the measurement of direct and indirect effects on land-use change.

Now, I wonder the impact of these considerations on the current debate on the 2030 Climate and Energy Package. The Package was mainly criticised for the lack of specific renewables targets for Member States as well as of specific transport targets. Without these elements, it is very difficult to expect the Member States to increase the amount of renewables and biofuels in their energy mix and meet the general objective of decarbonising transport. From its side, the IPCC is giving some credit to the FQD and proposes a conscious and balanced approach to biofuels. 

I am also pleased to see the IPCC's contextualized arguments on Brazil, which is mentioned several times in the report for some good examples in the sugarcane industry as well as for employment conditions and deforestation control policy. Notably, the Brazilian Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation is brought as an example on how the cooperation between several level of government and the “combination of economic and regulatory approaches significantly increased the protected areas” (Chapter 11). Further, IPCC recognizes that “Brazilian sugar cane ethanol production provides six times more jobs than the Brazilian petroleum sector and spreads income benefits across numerous municipalities” and rightly mentions the development of the bio-refineries in Brazil, where 10% of ethanol goes into bio-products (Chapter 11).

The IPCC should be credited for finally amending past inaccuracies as regards biofuels, by delivering a balanced approach in a report that carries significant weight with policymakers around the world. ‎Unfortunately, various lawmakers in Brussels have too often let the erroneous and emotion-based arguments of NGOs to guide policy around biofuels. Let's hope that policy makers will give this IPCC report a considered examination to inform policy intentions going forward around responsibly produced biofuels.

Sugarcane Ethanol Plays Modest but Important Role Supplying U.S. with Advanced Biofuels

By Leticia Phillips posted Apr 08, 2014
In advance of the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing – entitled Advanced Biofuels: Creating Jobs and Lower Prices at the Pump – UNICA released the following statement.

In advance of the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing  – entitled Advanced Biofuels: Creating Jobs and Lower Prices at the Pump – the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) released the following statement. It should be attributed to Leticia Phillips, UNICA’s representative in North America.

The United States and Brazil are the world’s top two ethanol exporters, and both nations enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of global biofuels trade.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel in 2010 after determining it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60% compared to gasoline.  Thanks to those greenhouse gas savings, the benefits of using sugarcane ethanol are cleaner air and a healthier planet – benefits that will grow as Americans consume more advanced biofuels.

Sugarcane ethanol plays a modest but important role supplying the United States with clean renewable fuel.  Last year, even though Brazilian sugarcane ethanol comprised only 3% of all renewable fuel consumed by Americans, it provided 15% of the U.S. supply of advanced biofuels.  Experts expect those proportions to continue in 2014.

Brazilian sugarcane producers are making investments to expand production, and Americans can depend on more advanced biofuel from sugarcane. America imported nearly 435 million gallons of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol in 2013 – roughly half of all Brazilian biofuel exports last year.  Brazil produces about 7.2 billion gallons of sugarcane ethanol annually, and UNICA estimates that at least 600 million gallons will be available for export to the U.S. this year, with the potential for growth.

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The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) is the leading trade association for the sugarcane industry in Brazil, representing 60 percent of the country’s sugarcane production and processing.  UNICA works to encourage the continuous advancement of sustainable practices throughout the sugarcane industry and to promote sugarcane-based biofuels as a clean, reliable alternative to fossil fuels.  For more information, including the latest updates on the Sugarcane Solutions Blog, check out

Message to IPCC on Climate Change: More Attention to Detail on Brazilian Sugarcane

By Géraldine Kutas posted Apr 04, 2014
This week the United Nations scientific panel on climate change (IPCC) published its latest report on climate change. The report, echoing its past findings about a clear link between climate change and human factors driving that change, argues that immediate action is required on the matter to reduce the variety of risks in the future that come from climate change.

This week the United Nations scientific panel on climate change (IPCC) published its latest report on climate change. The report, echoing its past findings about a clear link between climate change and human factors driving that change, argues that immediate action is required on the matter to reduce the variety of risks in the future that come from climate change.

On the issue of biofuels, the IPCC -- while it doesn’t repudiate them completely -- is more critical than in the past and for the first time argues they may have negative impacts on land use, food prices and water usage.

While I agree on the fact that some biofuels are more sustainable than others -- and Brazilian Sugarcane Ethanol (BSCE) is one good example -- some clarifications are needed to clean up some otherwise sloppy thinking about BSCE.

Let’s start with ILUC first: the report argues that expansion of biofuel crops in Brazil might cause rangeland (land where natural vegetation grows without human intervention) to move further into the Amazonian forest with negative effects on biodiversity, potentially offsetting carbon savings from biofuels production.

Brazil has substantially reduced deforestation in the Amazon over the past many years while expanding sugarcane production. In fact, that reality is one among others that has been trumpeting the undisciplined speculative tone the IPCC takes on this matter.

According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), more than 60% of new sugarcane production takes place on pastures, mostly degraded, which are released every year for other uses with the progressive intensification of cattle ranching activities (sugarcane actually captures larger amounts of carbon that previous land uses).

Further, Brazil’s 2009 Agro-ecological Zoning for Sugarcane policy prevents sugarcane expansion in sensitive ecosystems, like the Amazon, as well as in areas with native plants and of high conservation-value, in order to protect biodiversity.

The IPCC report falls down on the BSCE issue because it uses as a reference point a dated 2010 study (Lapola et al, 2010), yet it neglects some of its own conclusions such as the finding that increasing the livestock density throughout the country could avoid the ILUC caused by biofuels while still fulfilling all food and bioenergy demand. That is exactly how Brazil expands most of the sugarcane area.

Turning now to food prices: the report maintains that increasing demand for biofuels shifts land from food to fuel production, which may increase food prices disproportionately affecting the poor.

Well, the fact is that in the last 20 years the production of both food and biofuels has increased significantly in Brazil. The volume of sugarcane harvested and processed almost tripled with no drop in food production. Quite the opposite: Brazil’s grain production doubled during the past ten years. According to the World Bank, recent price hikes in agricultural commodities can be explained by a list of other factors such as rapidly rising oil prices, adverse weather conditions, devaluation of the dollar, speculation in agricultural markets, and increased food demand due to population and economic growth, particularly in Asia. Other studies also put the “food vs fuel” debate into perspective.

My last point is on the claim that water usage for biofuels cultivation “is projected to increase from 0.5% of global renewable water resources in 2005 to 5.5% in 2030” (according to the IEA).

Here, I believe I should specify that this is not the case in South-Central Brazil where most of the crop is grown and where sugarcane is usually not irrigated thanks to abundant and reliable rainfall. Water accounts for more than two-thirds of sugarcane’s weight, so a significant amount of water actually comes to the mill inside the cane itself. At the mills, water usage in cane processing in Brazil was reduced by more than 70% (to 1.4 m³ per ton) in the past two decades and technological advancements will soon allow this number to further drop to 0.5 m³ per ton. The mills have also eliminated water discharge by recycling nearly 95% of the water consumed in the industrial process.

On a positive note, the IPCC report rightly mentions the benefits of biofuels in Brazil, where the development of advanced technologies (such as hydrolysis) mitigates the alleged social and environmental impact of sugarcane cultivation while increasing its economic potential, and points to the use of bagasse for the production of bioelectricity.

So what conclusions should we draw from the IPCC report? While I understand the necessary generalization that this type of study has to make in order to be comprehensive, a number of clarifications were needed to grasp the correct picture of what actually happens in Brazil.

To avoid misleading the public policy, real and country-specific facts should be more at the basis of studies and reports of this kind to serve as a good policymaking foundation for lawmakers. 

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


Sugarcane Solutions Blog

Biofuels in the Renewable Energy Directive – the final call

On 17 May representatives of the European Parliament, member states and the European Commission will meet to negotiate the provisions on biofuels in REDII. This might be the last chance to find a compromise that ensures the future of a technology that is critical to reduce carbon emissions in transport.

Read on


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