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Leading the pack in renewable energy
José Pedro Martins
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Government pushes ethanol production as critics warn of consequences.

Brazil has the ability to become “a biofuel power” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said. If the country does take on the task of broadening its energy network, it would mean a significant increase in the production of ethanol.

More than 90 percent of Brazil’s energy is renewable, such as hydroelectricity, and other methods that have a limited environmental impact compared to the generation of greenhouse cases, though they take up a great deal of space.

Brazil produces almost 2 million barrels a day of crude, which makes the country self-sufficient in terms of oil supply. With an increased production of ethanol, Brazil will shift its energy production to become more strategic.

Brazil’s ethanol production is already advanced — the country is the world’s greatest ethanol producer.

In the 1970s, because of the world energy crisis, Brazil intensified its research and investment for the production of sugar-based fuel.
The country produces 17.5 billion liters of alcohol each year from 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of sugar fields.

Alcohol already incorporated
By its composition, all gasoline for sale in the country contains 25 percent alcohol, mixed with 75 percent oil derivatives. Also, 80 percent of the new cars sold in Brazil are equipped with technology allowing them to run completely on alcohol-based fuels.

Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes said in a meeting of the Inter-American Ethanol Production Commission April 17 that Brazil has 150 million hectares (370 million acres) available for farming. Projecting a 10 percent-increase in sugar fields that are “sustainable,” Brazil could double its ethanol production in a decade, according to Ministry estimates.

Brazil seems to have it all: available farmland, favorable climate, abundant water — the country is home to 12.5 percent of the world’s fresh water — contributing to the global effort to substitute fuels that produce greenhouse gases with natural fuels. But Stephanes as well as environmentalists and other specialists in the field warn that the increase must be environmentally and socially sound.

The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, or CNBB, warned in a press conference March 22 that the expansion of ethanol production could have a negative socio-environmental impact.

The bishops fear that Brazil can become into a “gigantic sugar field so the rest of the world can have clean energy.” Mons. Odílio Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo said: “the sugar cane plantations means the concentration of the land, because it requires big plantations and that has traditionally caused a rural exodus.”

Little compensation
The bishops also criticized the low salaries that the sugar cane harvesters earn — an average of US$2.40 for cutting 12 metric tons of sugar cane a day.

Evaristo Eduardo de Miranda, an ecologist and head of the Satellite Monitoring department at the Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research has been monitoring the changes in fields throughout the country with satellite technology, observing fires and deforestation.
Miranda says there are enormous advantages to using ethanol in terms of curbing the greenhouse effect.

Sugar cane, he says, absorbs 40 to 50 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, while other crops and grass only absorb an average of less than 5 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare.

The emission of greenhouse gases made from ethanol is far less than those produced from pure gasoline — an oil derivative. Ethanol is also being used in the production of biodegradable plastic, among other products, that were before made with oil, a highly contaminating, expensive and politically-charged substance.

Miranda notes that the majority of Brazil’s grain production is concentrated in the southern part of the country, so he does not predict a food production crisis if sugar cane production increases in the north.

“If it is done correctly, there is no problem,” he said. “Brazil produces many types of food. What is lacking is sufficient buying power, so it is necessary to broaden social policies for income generation and the reduction of inequalities.”

He adds, however, that Brazil can hold off until its market is more protected from the hungry international markets, prepared to eat up Brazilian ethanol.

But Brazil still enjoys enormous advantages compared to other ethanol-producing countries, such as the United States. In the US, 1 liter of corn-based ethanol needs almost 6.6 kilocalories of energy, while in Brazil, the same liter, made with sugar-based ethanol costs 1.5 kilocalories.

One liter of Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane costs $0.28, compared to $0.45, for a liter of US-made corn-based ethanol.

For Miranda, what Brazil is missing is “better coordination and articulation” of the ethanol expansion policy in a sustainable form.

If that occurs, ethanol will truly be able to become a great renewable energy power, contributing to the international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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