Sparks

Brazil could replace part of global oil use

 By Benjamin Plackett

Last year saw a number of high profile extreme weather events around the world from hurricanes to floods to droughts. While weather and climate are two very different things (short term versus long term), scientists have long predicted that these kind of extremes will become more frequent with climate change—making the need to explore alternative energies evermore necessary…

New research, a decade and a half in the making, has shown that Brazil holds the potential to farm its way towards a greener future. The production of ethanol for energy use from agricultural sugarcane, say the scientists, could reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 5.6 percent by 2045 compared to 2014.
This notion isn’t without controversy, as environmental groups understandably oppose any further destruction of the ecologically unique Amazon rainforest. But the researchers say their calculations indicate this could still be achieved without felling trees in this precious ecosystem.
“We excluded the Amazon from our analysis. We have assumed that we would not use this area of Brazil for cultivation,” explained study author Steve long, professor of crop sciences and plant biology at the University of Illinois Urbana.
The paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, gathers together a multitude of different datasets, which were fed into a complex computer algorithm in order to simulate not only the impact of increasing Brazilian sugarcane production for ethanol, but also to show how this could be done.
Long and his colleagues calculated that Brazil is theoretically able to produce enough ethanol to replace as much as 13.7 percent of the world’s crude oil consumption by growing more sugarcane.
This could help to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than two degrees Celsius, as agreed by the 196 countries that signed up to the Paris climate accord in 2015.

Ethanol storage tanks at the Costa Pinto sugar/ethanol plant at Piracicaba (Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, Wikimedia)

“There is no free lunch,” concedes Long. The land has to come from somewhere, which means either new land has to be designated for agriculture or current farming techniques need to change. Long says there is plenty of room for Brazil to do the latter.
“Brazil has a lot of low output pasture where you’re talking about maybe just two head of cattle per hectare, so one opportunity is to intensify that land to use less of it for pasture and open it up more of it for sugarcane,” said Long.
This is something that Brazil has already started to do, he added, “The government has been good at trying to do this and yet still protecting the Amazon.”
Long’s analysis also showed that sugarcane cultivation in Brazil could take place on land that isn’t suitable for traditional agriculture.
“Sugarcane is one of the most productive crops in the world and it can also grow on poorer land than our food crops. It doesn’t require many nutrients—it can almost grow on sand,” said Long.
Many of Long’s calculations are based on existing data on Brazil’s domestic energy use, which the government has been collecting for some time. “We are confident in the quality of this data. It’s not imaginary,” said Long. The computer model also includes weather and climate data to predict sugarcane yield and how it might be affected by climate change in the future.
“We took today’s day-to-day variations in weather and predicted how that would change in the future with increases in temperature and flooding,” he explained. Long’s computer model uses the “worst case scenario” for climate change, which he says could mean that sugarcane yields end up being even higher than he has predicted if the effect of climate change turns out to be less than the worst current predictions.

The ethanol distillery facility of Costa Pinto sugar/ethanol production plant (Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, Wikimedia)

“If climate change doesn’t hit as hard then the figures we present would be even higher,” said Long.
The analysis concluded that sugarcane cultivation for ethanol production in Brazil could be enlarged by between 37.5 million and 116 million hectares. Just how likely this is to ever happen is open to debate and it largely depends on political will and the Brazilian public’s perception. But Long points to the Brazilian government’s willingness in the past to embrace ethanol as a fuel source.
Regardless of whether Brazil implements his study’s recommendations to the letter, Long says his work has wider implications. He hopes it demonstrates the potential of ethanol from sugarcane production to the global community.
“Brazil isn’t the only opportunity for this,” said Long. “Around the world, a lot of sugarcane land has been disused. In Barbados for example it was mostly sugarcane but now it’s abandoned and their economy relies on tourism. The same is true in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Much of this land lies idle now.”

READ MORE: The future of biofuels by RP Siegel

about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.