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Leading in ethanol production
José Pedro Martins
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Country touts itself as top biofuels producer.

President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, in his visit to Brazil in March to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, promoted joint action in diverse issues of global interest, such as the fight against warming brought on by greenhouse gases.

“With Brazil’s leadership role on biofuels, we are working together to guarantee that biofuels are sustainable, good for the environment, good for reducing greenhouse gases and, therefore, to guarantee the quality of life on our planet,” Barroso said.

Barroso’s visit to discuss a possible association between Brazil and Europe for biofuels, among other things, is just one of the various actions taken by the Brazilian government to promote the country’s conversion into a world power in the sector, beginning with ethanol — a renewable biofuel that Brazil is already a leader of worldwide.

Indeed, Brazil does not lack the necessary conditions to increase its biofuel production. With plenty of available farmland, a favorable climate and an abundance of water — home to 12.5 percent of the world’s reserves of freshwater — the country can easily increase production and contribute to the international effort to prevent and mitigate global warming by replacing other fuels that create greenhouse gases.

Biofuels are sources of renewable energy, produced by cultivating crops like sugar cane, oleaginous plants and forest biomass, as well as other sources of organic material. They can be used independently or together with conventional fuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol.

Three decades of experience
Brazil leads the world in the production of ethanol from sugar cane, partly due to its advanced infrastructure that started up in the 1970s. Two years after the 1973 energy crisis, in which fuel prices rocketed, the military government (1964-85) launched a nationwide program to promote the production of anhydrous alcohol made from sugar cane that could increasingly be added to gasoline, as well as hydrated ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) to be used in vehicles with motors equipped to use it.

In 1975, the alcohol production in Brazil reached 700 million liters. More than three decades later, the country now produces more than 15 billion liters annually out of the 25 billion liters used annually for energy all over the world in a current pool of 350 alcohol factories, the number of which is growing.

Sugar cane derivatives already represent nearly 14 percent of Brazilian energy and 17 percent of the fuels used for vehicles, versus 54.5 percent of diesel petrol — the most common for trucks — and 25 percent pure gasoline. The three remaining percent is natural gas for vehicles.

Likewise, Brazil has developed a flexible fuel technology that allows a vehicle to use both gasoline and ethanol. According to the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers, cars with this technology represented 53 percent of sales in Brazil in 2005.

The spectacular increase in ethanol production is, among other factors, due to the expansion of areas where sugar cane is planted. There are currently more than 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of sugar cane planted in the country. Almost two-thirds are in the state of São Paulo, where most ethanol factories are also located.

Environment and food security
However, there is a fear that the increasing expansion of land dedicated to growing sugar cane in other Brazilian states could lead to deforestation of native forests or the substitution of areas originally used to raise food crops.

“If it were done correctly, there wouldn’t be any problems with raising sugar cane. Brazil produces a lot of food; but there isn’t enough purchasing power and for that reason it’s fundamental to extend social policies that generate more income and reduce inequality,” claimed Evaristo Eduardo Miranda, head of Embrapa Satellite Monitoring of the state-run Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.

According to Miranda, one of the ethanol experts in the country, what’s lacking in Brazil is “greater coordination and articulation” of sustainable ethanol expansion policies. If this occurred in a planned manner, the country could easily be a great power in renewable energy, contributing to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases. Miranda stresses that Brazil has 200 million hectares (494 million acres) of pasture, where sugar cane farming is expanding.

But all the care taken cannot be exaggerated, environmentalists and other societal groups say. Town councilor Euclides Buzetto, of the ruling Worker’s Party, considers it fundamental, for example, to finish with the practice of burning, still commonly used on sugar cane plantations to facilitate the harvest.

“We must be insistent with the government so that it signs agreements with all the factories, so that they make a commitment to sustainable agriculture without increasing burnings that are so damaging to the environment and human beings. And, additionally, so that they reserve a great percentage of the sugar cane area for the farming of basic cereals in order to feed our people, with accessible prices, as has been happening in recent years,” says a Buzetto, town councilor from the city of Piracicaba in São Paulo’s interior, one of the principal producers of ethanol and other biofuels in Brazil.


Workers on a sugar cane planta
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