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CLIMATE CHANGE: Brazilian Ethanol Goes It Alone

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

BRASILIA, Mar 1 2008 (IPS) - Despite the urgency to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, Brazil has been unable to stave off the doubts that are slowing the growth of an international market for plant-based biofuels.

In the three decades since fuel alcohol, or ethanol, has been used as a gasoline substitute (or mixed with it) in Brazil, the country has avoided emissions of 600 million tonnes of carbon, the main contributor to global warming, according to Environment Minister Marina Silva.

In comparison, the reduction of carbon emissions resulting from decreased deforestation in the Amazon jungle in the last three years was 500 million tonnes, she said.

The expansion of the ethanol market could contribute to fighting climate change if the trade barriers in the developed economies are removed, said World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently, in a nod to the Bank's role as an ally as Brazil seeks to boost its alternative fuels.

TerraViva's Ramesh Jaura speaks with Pamela Cox

The statement from Zoellick, who served as the U.S. trade representative from 2001 to 2005 and was a harsh adversary of Brazil in international trade talks, was transmitted by video to the G8+5 Legislators Forum on Climate Change, held in Brasilia, Feb. 20-21.

The forum drew lawmakers from the Group of Eight (G8) most powerful countries, and from five emerging economies – Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa – and was promoted by GLOBE (Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment) and the COM+ Alliance, a partnership of international organisations and communications professionals.

The G8 comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

The legislators discussed a document on plant-based fuels – seen as less polluting than fossil fuels – that included six criteria for sustainability and the need to establish a certification system for ethanol and biofuels to be recommended for mitigating climate change.

A detailed defence of ethanol (made from sugarcane in Brazil) came from Marcos Jank, president of the Sao Paulo Sugarcane Industry Union, whose membership is responsible for more than half of Brazil's ethanol production.

Ethanol means reductions of more than 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline, said Jank.

Sugarcane, with 500 years of history in Brazil, has for the past three decades provided energy-efficient ethanol, and, more recently, electricity from the biomass of cane pulp. Production today costs just 30 percent of what it did when the gasoline substitution programme began in 1975.

Growth in productivity was spectacular, and with the new hydrolysis technology, which will make use of the sugarcane leaves and other parts of the plant that make up two-thirds of its biomass, output could be twice the current production of 7,000 litres per hectare, according to Jank.

In the future, this food crop will no longer be known as "sugar cane", but rather "electricity and ethanol cane," he said.

But the "sensationalist" news and widely disseminated opinions have distorted what could be a solution, even if only partially, in the fight against climate change, said the industrial union leader.

Production of ethanol from corn and sugar beets in the United States and Europe – which also have erected high barriers on ethanol imports -, environmental concerns and the scandal of cane workers subjected to conditions of slavery in Brazil have generated a wave of rejection that is slowing the creation of a global biofuel market, in which Brazilian ethanol would be a major player.

In Jank's opinion, there is an abundance of "speculation" that ignores concrete data, like sugarcane energy efficiency, which is much greater than corn or sugar beet ethanol.

The charge that expansion of sugarcane threatens the Amazon makes no sense either, he said, because sugarcane does not adapt to the humid climate of the jungle, but rather needs the climate found in the region of Sao Paulo state, the leading producer.

The fact that some sugar mills and distilleries exist in the Amazon does not indicate a trend, and such activity will not prosper because sugarcane yields there are very low there compared to other regions, agrees Mark Lundell, environmental coordinator for the World Bank in Brazil.

Nor is it inevitable that sugarcane will take land away from food production or push other agricultural mainstays like soy and livestock to encroach on the Amazon, according to Jank.

If livestock were productive and less extensive, "it would free up 50 million hectares for agriculture (in Brazil) …and we would not need more than 15 million hectares for all the production and export" possible of ethanol in this country, he said.

The World Bank has become a major ally of Brazil in its campaign for cane ethanol and for a biofuels free market.

Fuel alcohol already supplies 30 percent of the demand of vehicles in Brazil, and occupies just four million hectares for its production, or about five percent of the land used for agriculture, said Pamela Cox, the Bank's vice-president for Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is a low-cost contribution towards mitigating climate change and a Brazilian technology that has a great role to play globally, she told the Forum.

The world could use ethanol or biodiesel to substitute 15 to 20 percent of the petroleum it uses, according to Sergio Bagrielli, president of Petrobras, the state-run oil company that has expanded its activity to various energy sources.

To do so would not require major modifications to existing vehicle engines. No changes are needed to add up to five percent ethanol to gasoline. Brazil already mixes 25 percent in some engine adaptations, and developed a technology for cars to use fuel mixtures of any proportion.

But the G8+5 Legislators Forum noted the isolation of Brazil in its proposal for creating a global biofuels market.

Until just a few years ago, ethanol was seen as the "great solution", but today it has become just the opposite – an alternative that contributes little or nothing to mitigating climate change, noted Anders Wijkman, Swedish member of the European Parliament.

Many of the lawmakers gathered in Brasilia, some of whom visited biofuel production sites, said they were impressed by the environmental, social and economic advantages of sugarcane ethanol in Brazil, especially its potential for replication in other developing countries – but they also expressed some doubts.

That is why the initial draft of the document was not approved, after facing objections from several countries. The approved recommendation, less than what Brazil expected, recognises the South American giant's leadership and the need for certifications for ethanol and biofuel. The issue will be taken up again by the G8 at its next summit, in July.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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