How Brazil got sugar smart to meet its energy challenge


Picture of Elizabeth Farina
Elizabeth Farina

Creative thinking pays dividends

Elizabeth Farina is CEO of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association

By 2050 the world’s population will grow by 40%. There will be an additional 2.5 billion people requiring food and fuel. During the same period global energy demand is likely to double. The world is facing a tremendous challenge: how to supply two very basic needs to a growing population in a context where decarbonisation is a necessity.

To respond to these huge but basic demands we have no choice but to use our finite resources more efficiently. It’s a journey Brazil started some forty years ago. In the 1970s Brazil imported almost 80% of its total oil consumption. Now the country is virtually energy independent and a leader in renewable energy (more than 40% of Brazil’s energy comes from renewable sources – the global average is less than 15%).

Brazil is the world’s largest sugar producer and exporter, but it is also a pioneer in the use of sugarcane ethanol as a motor fuel. Sugarcane ethanol and bioelectricity produced from leftover fibres make sugarcane the largest source of renewable energy in Brazil. It provides around 17% of the country’s total energy needs – second only to oil, and ahead of hydroelectricity. More than 40% of the country’s petrol needs have been replaced by sugarcane ethanol.

Brazilian policy promoting ethanol as a fuel started during the oil shock of the 1970s. But sugarcane ethanol’s popularity really took off in 2003 with the introduction of flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) that run on either gasoline blends or pure ethanol. FFVs give Brazilian consumers a choice at the pump when they fuel their cars, and most are choosing sugarcane ethanol for its price and environmental benefits. Due to consumer demand more than 90% of new cars sold today in Brazil are FFVs, and these vehicles now make up about 70% of the country’s entire light vehicle fleet – a remarkable accomplishment in only a decade. 16 car manufacturers offer more than 242 models of FFVs in Brazil.

Over half of sugarcane expansion would occur on degraded pastures where cultivation would improve the land’s carbon balance

Most of Brazil’s bioethanol production is absorbed by the domestic market, where it is sold as either pure ethanol fuel or is blended with gasoline at levels of between 18 and 27.5% ethanol. This flexibility is an important element of the food-energy integration nexus: the government decides the blending rate depending on harvest conditions, and it can be lowered when there are tensions in the agricultural market. This mechanism has been successfully used many times over the past ten years.

Free trade in biofuels is essential to guarantee adequate supply and avoid market disruption. For instance, thanks to the absence of import restrictions, the United States could import large quantities of Brazilian ethanol in 2012 and 2013 when the US was hit by a record drought, with no impact on its corn exports or fuel supply.

Brazil has emerged as a leader in providing both food and energy from its diversified and efficient agricultural sector. In the past 20 years the volume of sugarcane harvested and processed in Brazil has almost tripled to meet rising demand for sugar, ethanol and bioelectricity. During that time there has been no drop in Brazilian food production; in fact, Brazil’s grain production doubled over the last decade. Meanwhile, quality of life for many Brazilians has improved, with 36m people lifted out of extreme poverty between 2002 and 2014 as a result of government programmes aimed at eradicating hunger. Besides sugar and ethanol, Brazil is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of beef, coffee, corn, orange juice, pork, poultry and soybean. The country is not just feeding itself but also much of the world with its high-productivity agriculture.

Over the next decade Brazilian sugarcane production is estimated to double. The country’s agro-ecological zoning regulations, passed in 2009, limit the amount of land to be used for sugarcane to 64.7m hectares, or about 7.5% of Brazil’s land mass. Still, the area available for sugarcane expansion in Brazil is almost nine times larger than what is currently under cultivation. More than half of this future expansion would occur on degraded pastures where cultivating sugarcane would actually improve the carbon balance of the land.

More than 40% of Brazil’s petrol needs have been replaced by sugarcane ethanol

On top of that, technological advances continue to increase productivity and yield, achieving more ethanol from the same area of land. Enhanced sugarcane varietals have already improved ethanol production by increasing sucrose levels by 20%. Productivity is expected to rise by one-third using new cellulose hydrolysis technology to make ‘second-generation’ ethanol. In this process, energy is extracted from by-products of traditional ethanol extraction methods: sugarcane straw and bagasse, which is the pulpy residue that remains after juice extraction.

Research and innovation continue to unleash the full potential of sugarcane. Brazil has the world’s largest plant for biopolyethylene, a cane-derived bioplastic used by many household names including Coca-Cola, Ecover and Toyota. In addition there are two commercial plants producing second-generation ethanol, which is promoting the vertical expansion of the industry.

But there is more to come. Tests with renewable sugarcane-based jet fuel and cane-derived diesel are extremely encouraging, as is the development of pellets from bagasse and biogas from vinasse, the final by-product of the ethanol distillation process.

The world’s growing population and the urgent need to decrease our carbon emissions create new equations, with agriculture at the centre. Smart and innovative policies can support the smooth development of both food and energy production.

In today’s world, where resources need to be maximised, we should look to countries such as Brazil, think creatively, and develop smart and sustainable alternatives.

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