Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
1. How much sugarcane is produced in Brazil and around the world? Brazil produced 620.83 million tons of sugarcane in 2018/19. World production is close to 1.9 billion tons annually and is concentrated in tropical regions, particularly developing nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, there are over 100 countries producing sugarcane today.
In Brazil, sugarcane currently covers 9.5 million hectares, or 1% of the country’s total area. The crop is grown primarily in the South-Central and Northeastern regions, with South-Central Brazil responsible for close to 90% of Brazil’s sugarcane. In that region, the harvest runs from April to December, and in the Northeast, it lasts from September to March. The state of Sao Paulo alone accounts for 60% of the country’s total sugarcane production.
2. How important is sugarcane to meeting Brazil’s energy needs?
Sugarcane ethanol and bioelectricity produced from leftover fibers, stalks and leaves make sugarcane the largest source of renewable energy in Brazil. Sugarcane provides 17.4% of the country’s total energy supply, second only to oil and ahead of hydroelectricity. Forty-six percent of the country’s gasoline needs have been replaced by sugarcane ethanol – making gasoline the alternative fuel in Brazil. Learn more about Brazil’s diverse energy matrix.
3. How does sugarcane ethanol help mitigate global warming ?
Substituting sugarcane ethanol for gasoline reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 90% on average. Since 2003, Brazil’s use of this clean, renewable fuel has cut that country’s carbon dioxide emissions by 535 million tons. That’s as good for the environment as planting and maintaining 4 billion trees for 20 years! Learn more about how sugarcane reduces greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil.
4. Does the production of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol contribute to deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest?
No. The Amazon region does not offer the proper climatic, economic or logistical conditions for commercial sugarcane production.
Most sugarcane for ethanol production (90%) is harvested in South-Central Brazil, over 2,500 km (1,550 miles) from the outside edge of the Amazon. The remainder (10%) is grown in Northeastern Brazil, about the same distance from the Amazon’s easternmost fringe. That is roughly equivalent to the distance between New York City and Dallas, or between Paris and Moscow. Find out for yourself by exploring an interactive map that shows precisely where sugarcane is grown in Brazil.
5. Does sugarcane expansion push other agricultural activities into the Brazilian rainforest?
Brazil has made significant progress reducing deforestation rates over the past decade and Brazil is now mentioned as a leading example on how to fight this problem. Reduced Brazilian deforestation occurred while sugarcane cultivation was expanding rapidly due to booming demand for ethanol, making any correlation between the two a hazardous argument and empirically very difficult to demonstrate.
6. Is Brazil being overrun by sugarcane plantations to the detriment of food production?
Production of both food and bioenergy has increased significantly in Brazil. In the last 20 years, the volume of sugarcane harvested and processed in Brazil has almost tripled to meet rising demand for sugarcane ethanol and bioelectricity. During that time, there has been no drop in Brazilian food production. In fact, Brazil’s grain production doubled during the past ten years. Besides sugar and ethanol, Brazil is the world’s leading exporter of beef, coffee, orange juice and poultry. The country is not just feeding itself better but also much of the world with its high-productivity agriculture.
7. How are labor conditions in the Brazilian sugarcane sector?
The sugarcane industry is one of Brazil’s most important economic sectors in terms of job creation, with more than 770,000 people employed nationwide. The average wage paid by member companies of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) is roughly double the current federal minimum wage, which makes salaries for sugarcane workers compared to others in the agriculture second only to those in the highly mechanized soybean sector. Learn more about steps the Brazilian sugarcane industry takes to create a safe and responsible work environment.
8. Does sugarcane ethanol production and use cause more damage to the environment than fossil fuels?
Absolutely not! Compared to gasoline, sugarcane ethanol cuts carbon dioxide emissions by 90% on average. That’s better than any other liquid biofuel produced today at commercial scale. Learn more about the sustainable production of sugarcane products and their many benefits.
9. What are the differences between ethanol produced from sugarcane, corn, sugarbeet, wheat and other feedstocks?
The finished product – ethanol – is virtually identical chemically. The only difference is the plant used to produce this renewable fuel. However, using sugarcane as a feedstock produces many important benefits compared to other plants.
Under current Brazilian conditions, the production of a given quantity of sugarcane ethanol yields nine times more energy than it consumes during its production, an energy balance that is over four times better than that of ethanol from sugarbeet and wheat and nearly seven times that of corn ethanol. This energy advantage in turn contributes to a significant reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the production of gasoline and diesel not only does not yield renewable energy, but also results in negative energy efficiency. For each unit of fossil energy consumed during the production process, only about 0.8 unit of fossil energy is generated.
Brazilian sugarcane ethanol also features the highest level of productivity in terms of liters of fuel per hectare of land required. While South- Central Brazil produces, on average, 7,500 liters per hectare, European sugarbeet ethanol yields an average of 5,500 l/ha while U.S. corn ethanol reaches around 3,800 l/ha.
10. Does sugarcane ethanol production consume more energy than it generates?
No. When the entire process is considered – a so-called “wells-to-wheels” analysis that factors in cultivation, harvesting, processing, transportation and use – every unit of fossil energy consumed to produce sugarcane ethanol yields 9.3 units of clean, renewable fuel. In comparison, ethanol produced from other feedstocks, such as sugar beet, grains and corn, manages a 4-to-1 ratio at best.
11. Is sugarcane ethanol a solution where only Brazil benefits?
No. More than 100 countries grow sugarcane, and most could repeat Brazil’s successful experience by producing, using and exporting ethanol. Most of these countries are emerging economies located in tropical regions, which would appreciate opportunities for greater economic development. Ethanol production and use creates jobs, develops technology, allows for the introduction of cheap renewable electricity in rural areas, cuts down on oil imports and provides a new export product.
Expanding ethanol production to more of those cane-growing countries would also enhance global energy security by diversifying energy supplies and reducing world reliance on only 20 oil-producing countries.
12. Will ethanol become a global commodity?
Ethanol is poised to become an established global energy commodity thanks to many factors that include:
The adoption of biofuel consumption targets in an increasing number of countries Significant investment in ethanol by global firms from a wide range of sectors Recognition that ethanol helps confront the growing challenges of energy security, global warming and economic development However, ethanol will become a true global commodity only when commercial barriers imposed by developed countries are removed. Ironically, fossil fuels continue to be traded freely around the world, while renewable fuels – which are cleaner and represent progress towards energy security – face highly protected markets.
13. What is the outlook for the flex fuel vehicle market in Brazil? Flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) that can run on either gasoline or ethanol were first introduced in Brazil in 2003. They now account for 90 percent of new car sales and more than 70% of all Brazilian vehicles on the road today. Market projections suggest FFV sales will stabilize at around 90 percent in Brazil, with the other 10 percent comprised of diesel-powered light vehicles and gasoline-powered imports that do not offer the flex fuel option.
With FFVs so prevalent, most Brazilian consumers have a choice at the pump, and they’ve chosen to replace more than half the country’s gasoline needs with sugarcane ethanol. Learn more about the history and current status of Brazil’s innovative transportation fleet.