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CLIMATE CHANGE: Brazil Defends Biofuels

Claudia Ciobanu* - IPS/TerraViva

COPENHAGEN, Dec 8 2009 (IPS) - Being the world’s largest producer and exporter of ethanol it is natural for the Brazilian government and its partners to push biofuels as the only real alternative for a world trying wean itself away from fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

Smoke from sugar cane burn-off chokes the air in the countryside. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Smoke from sugar cane burn-off chokes the air in the countryside. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Brazilian authorities were ready with their arguments at the United Nations climate change summit underway here. Over the past 30 years, since the country embarked on its ethanol programme, an estimated 800 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions have been avoided.

Brazilian delegates were at pains to show that not only is biofuel production the best way to reduce greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions but can also combat poverty as exemplified by the country’s scheme to promote micro-distilleries to provide additional income for rural families.

Biofuels have, however, come under serious attack in recent years for eating into farmlands meant for food production. As a result, the European Union backed out, last year, from a commitment to introduce a 10 percent mandatory quota of biofuels in all transportation by 2020.

In Brazil itself environmentalists have pointed to biofuel production as one of the key reasons for the steady deforestation of the Amazon basin.

Countering such criticism Jose Migues from the Brazilian ministry of science and technology said: “We were told that biofuels lead to deforestation in the Amazon, but the ethanol production areas are 3,000 km away from the Amazon.’’

Migues referred to Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), a phrase describing the effects of biofuel production, which pushes human activities towards the Amazonian forests. In the Sao Paulo area, where most ethanol production is concentrated, there has been a significant decrease in cattle raising and agricultural production.

“But is it fair to say that all of these activities are now moving to the Amazon?” asked Thelma Krug, another representative of the ministry. “There is much room for making agriculture and cattle raising more efficient in Brazil.”

While the question of where Sao Paulo’s farmers moved remained unanswered in Copenhagen, the planned expansion of the ethanol industry threatens further displacement. Over six million hectares are under sugar cane in Brazil but Krug said there were plans to make ‘’64 million ha available for expanding sugar cane production.”

Krug said the government is working on using satellite imagery to monitor the loss of forest cover and keep deforestation under check. A representative of Nature Conservancy a Brazilian non-governmental organisation (NGO) spoke of the thoroughness of forest protection laws.

As for food security issues linked to biofuel production, Andre Correa do Lago, director general of the energy department in the ministry of foreign affairs, stopped short of an outright denial that biofuels were to blame for the 2008 rise in food prices.

“Food security is one of the main concerns of our government,” he said. “Biofuels, like any other human endeavour, can be done in a better way. So we should not use the worst case as a general reference point.”

Legislation is under consideration to prevent biomass burning, which is responsible for large amounts of GhG emissions.

Much of the waste, especially bagasse, is replacing polluting nitrogenous fertilisers and the production process streamlined with nine units of energy being produced from bagasse against every unit from fossil energy.

While admitting that “biofuels are no silver bullet,” Brazilian authorities insist that biofuels are the best way forward for developing countries.

( *This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online daily published from the CoP 15 at Copenhagen.)

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