Monday, April 2, 2007

Brazil On Collision Course: Ethanol & Environment

Deforestation in Brazil: This image of the southern Amazon uses satellite data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite collected in 2000 and 2001 to classify the terrain into three separate land surface categories: forest (red), herbaceous (non-woody) vegetation like grasses (green), and bare ground (blue). The Amazon’s numerous rivers appear white. Image Credit:

Brazil On Collision Course: Ethanol & Environment

Ethanol production, "the renewable fuel resource", requires fiber (lots of fibre) and water (lots of water) to become the bio-replacement fuel of the future. If Brazil has its way, it plans to expand its capacity to produce Ethanol by 12 times over the next eighteen years and eclipse all other nations ability to supply the world demand for energy based on something other than petroleum.

This expansion is expected to place additional stresses on the ecosystems that surround the populated portions of Brazil. The decades old practice of slash & burn clear-cutting of the forests may now come full circle to slash & convert putting any vegetation on the production line for Ethanol.

Wither the land is cleared for sugarcane or just being cleared for the fibre due to advances in technology to convert more types of fibre ... rain forests are at a greater risk over the next 20 years.

Excerpts from Tierramérica via Inter Press Service News Agency -

Brazil Aims to Dominate World Ethanol Market
Mario Osava - 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.)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 31 (Tierramérica) - Brazil is working towards producing enough ethanol to substitute 10 percent of the gasoline consumed worldwide within 18 years. That would mean increasing its current production of 17.3 billion litres a year by a factor of 12, without sacrificing forests, protected areas or food cultivation.

The government called on a group of experts to study the possibilities and impacts of a sharp increase in fuel alcohol production from sugarcane.

The group led by the Interdisciplinary Group for Energy Planning of Campinas University, and coordinated by physicist Rogério Cerqueira Leite, concluded that Brazil could produce 205 billion litres of ethanol by 2025. A comparable volume will be produced by the rest of the world, predict experts.
Increased ethanol production is essential. The experts' report says there will be a 40-percent hike in output per hectare of sugarcane through a new technology based on hydrolysis. The United States and Brazil agreed to cooperate in developing this approach during the Mar. 8-9 visit by President George W. Bush in Sao Paulo.

Potentially, hydrolysis, which can take advantage of any cellulose material, could double productivity, but the goal was set at 40 percent based on known technologies and because part of the sugarcane waste (pulp and straw) is used in generating electricity, not ethanol, explained Carlos Rossell, a researcher with the group.

Rainforest cleared for maize - Location: Puerto Maldanado - Image Credit:

This technology involves some complicated challenges, such as breaking down very tough plant structures, which will require a great deal of effort to make it viable on an industrial scale, Rossell told Tierramérica.

U.S. and European scientists are farther along in this research and benefit from much bigger investments, but Brazil has the advantage of the immediate availability of the sugarcane, ready to be processed. The others will have to go into the fields to bring in the stalks and other bio-material, mostly from maize, with additional costs, he said.

For the same reason, the expertise that can come from the United States, whose ethanol production is based on corn, doesn't resolve the Brazilian problem. The raw materials are different, the researcher said.

For now, the United States produces a little more ethanol than Brazil does, but production costs are 40 percent higher, according to industry leaders in Brazil. The U.S. tariff barrier of 54 cents on the dollar per gallon (3.8 litres) did not prevent the northern giant from importing 1.6 billion litres of Brazilian fuel alcohol last year, when increased demand drove up maize prices.

In addition to destabilising the international market, increasing maize prices and soybean prices (the former's replacement for animal feed), U.S. ethanol is hardly environmentally efficient.

Each unit of energy used in U.S. ethanol production generates just 1.3 to 1.8 units of renewable energy, while sugarcane reaches a minimum of 8.3 units. As such, U.S.-produced ethanol does little to curb emissions that cause climate change, which, along with high-priced petroleum are the main reasons biofuels are being promoted.

In Brazil, ethanol also faces limitations. Peasant farmer movements and many social activists condemn the growth of agro-energy that hurts food production. Environmentalists fear further expansion of the farm frontier into Amazon forests, especially as land prices increase.

Fuel alcohol production has "negative environmental, social and economic impacts for the communities," it generates few jobs, and "consumes a lot of natural resources -- each litre of ethanol requires 30 litres of water," criticises Temístocles Marcelos, environmental policy director at the labour union CUT.

Virtually all forest clearing, by small farmer and plantation owner alike, is done by fire. Though these fires are intended to burn only limited areas, they frequently escape agricultural plots and pastures and char pristine rainforest. Image Credit:
The experts' study, however, points to the creation of five million new jobs if the ambitious production plan is implemented.
In Sao Paulo state, home to more than half of Brazil's ethanol production, 60 percent of the sugarcane fields are burned in order to facilitate cutting, polluting the air and causing a number of illnesses. The sugarcane industrialists are also accused of subjecting their workers to unhealthy and exhausting work conditions, which, according to reports, have also led to death.
The burns are also legal, and are to be abolished by 2020, he said. The solution would be accelerated if cellulose ethanol production were further advanced, because it uses sugarcane leaves.

Furthermore, ethanol benefits all of humanity by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Its incorporation into Brazil's national energy matrix and its international marketing -- which should be unrelated to that of petroleum -- "depends only on political will," said Ribeiro.
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