Multiple-Authorship blog platform on issues related to sugarcane cultivation and industrial applications
Brazil may be the world’s largest producer of sugar, but the nation’s sugarcane stalks aren’t just winding up in your morning cup of coffee. They’re also flowing into your car’s gas tank as sugarcane ethanol, reducing emissions and creating the future of clean renewable fuel.
As 18,000 representatives of the world’s sugar industry gather at this week’s Platts Kingsman Miami Sugar conference, we think the time is perfect to consider the modest but important role Brazilian sugarcane ethanol exports play in meeting not only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) targets, but the world’s biofuel needs.
Platts’ conference will examine major trends facing the global sugar industry, and Brazilian sugarcane producers are particularly well positioned to contribute to two main conference themes – a reason we’re proud to be official conference media sponsors.
Regional sugar markets and challenges of over-supply
In 2013 Brazil sent 588 million tons of sugarcane to crush, producing 32 million tons of sugar, and exporting nearly 27 million tons. As the top global producer, Brazil’s also uniquely experienced in how sugar supplies can be brought to market and avoid oversupply challenges – a major theme for the conference.
Sugarcane ethanol has proven to be an extremely effective outlet for Brazil’s sugar output. UNICA members produced 23 billion liters (6 billion gallons) in 2013, ranking second in ethanol output worldwide. Nearly 3.5 billion liters (924 million gallons) was exported, with roughly half shipped to the United States. Nearly all of the 1.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol imported by the U.S. since 2007 has been from Brazilian sugarcane, with at least 61% fewer emissions than gasoline.
Those numbers are significant, but they pale in comparison to Brazil’s domestic consumption. The country first used ethanol to fuel vehicles nearly 100 years ago, and today 90% of new cars sold in Brazil are flex fuel. In fact, sugarcane ethanol has replaced almost 40% of Brazil’s domestic gasoline demand, cutting nearly 200 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Updates on ethanol programs and cogeneration
Even with existing sugarcane ethanol successes, Brazil is advancing technology further into the future. Increased production efficiencies mean even more sugarcane ethanol flows from fields to fuel tanks.
Indeed, Brazil has the potential to replace 14% of global transportation fuel demand without altering current sugar production – a big boost in the fight to cut emissions. By 2050, global energy needs could double, increasing emissions up to 80% unless we pursue low-carbon fuel options.
Sugarcane ethanol producers are also pushing the envelope on cogeneration using leftover stalks (bagasse). Self-sufficient sugarcane mills use bagasse to power their operations instead of fossil fuels, often producing enough power to sell clean electricity back to the grid. In 2012 alone, bioelectricity from these mills supplied 3% of Brazil’s total electricity demand.
Brazil’s recipe for a sweeter sugar(cane) future
Add it all together, and the “Brazilian experience” of using sugarcane to power a renewable energy future is a recipe for success on how stable policy and investment in new technologies can fuel a green economy while cutting emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
In fact, without cleaner-burning sugarcane biofuels fueling Brazilian vehicles and sugarcane field bagasse generating bioelectricity, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and power generation would have been 22% higher in 2006 and could be 43% higher in 2020.
So when it comes to creating a sweeter future for sugar and biofuels, follow the leader – Brazil.
After an intense summer break, which saw Brussels far from quiet but rather busy speculating about the nominations to top EU posts, business has resumed in the institutions.
In the Parliament, the Environment committee has already met to vote on the questionnaire to be addressed to the Commissioner-Designates for Environment and Climate in upcoming hearings. The committee will soon reopen discussions on the ILUC proposal in second reading, under the leadership of the new rapporteur, Nils Torvalds, and newly designated shadow rapporteurs such as Christopher Fjellner for the EPP. As I mentioned already in previous posts, in second reading only the leading committee is involved in developing the Parliament position and the associated Committee (ITRE) is only entitled to propose amendments ahead of the plenary vote.
Member States, which agreed on a Council position on 13 June, have not yet transmitted their common position to the Parliament. We hear that this will only happen in November. All this tells me that Member States are not particularly eager to resume what they see as a controversial debate. With such a sluggish approach, the file is unlikely to see a conclusion before mid-2015.
Once more: delay, delay, delay! Despite the ticking clock in the background, EU policymakers fail to realise the urgency of the situation.
A report published at the end of August highlights the consequences of these inconsistent and delayed policies – in the EU and elsewhere. In its 2014 medium-term forecast on Renewable Energy, the IEA notes that “biofuels for transport face a slower growth and persistent policy challenges”. The lack of clarity in how the EU aims to address the sustainability of biofuels and the difficulty in foreseeing a rapid epilogue to the ILUC proposal have a clear detrimental impact on the biofuels industry, which is in no condition to plan long-term investments.
Even the Commission, which initially put forward the legislative proposal to fix the ILUC issue, now seems to be turning its back to the whole debate. It appears that the line of the new Transport Commissioner for the next five years will be to focus more on alternative fuels (EVs, LNG, CNG, etc) than on biofuels, given the legislative uncertainty on ILUC.
Bottom line, the climate around biofuels seems even more complicated than before the summer. Policy makers are taking time and industry is struggling. The EU should decide a line of action and implement it if it wants the biofuels industry to be able to help in the decarbonisation of transport and in the development of advanced biofuels. A more balanced approach is necessary to allow good biofuels (whether conventional or advanced) to contribute to the fuel mix and align Europe with other countries where gasoline is preferred to diesel and higher blends of ethanol are in use.
Until a more balanced approach is adopted, the clock will continue to tick - worryingly so.