October 19, 2011

Brazilian Ethanol: A Viable Model?

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If the U.S. terminated the high protective tariff it imposes on ethanol from Brazil, American consumers would save about $2.6 billion by 2015, according to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The tariff, which protects the American ethanol industry from the competition of foreign biofuels, including Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol, has caused considerable tension between the U.S. and Brazil.

Brazil, the second largest producer of ethanol after the U.S., uses sugarcane for its ethanol, which requires far less fossil fuel energy to produce than does the U.S’s corn ethanol.

Roberto Rodrigues, the former Brazilian minister of agriculture, discussed Brazil’s booming ethanol industry in a panel discussion in Des Moines during the World Food Prize, which ended last Saturday. The panel was chaired by director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, Frank Sesno.

Brazil’s sugarcane fields and mills act as carbon sinks, emitting 89 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. Corn ethanol production is harder to pin down, but can range from actually increasing emissions to decreasing emissions by roughly 40 percent, according to the International Association for Energy Economics.

The sugarcane mills burn the byproduct bagasse, the fibers of the sugarcane plant, to create electricity to run the plant.

“I went to a sugar mill and they were selling carbon credits to a company in Sweden,” Sesno said.

In a productivity comparison published by the Ethanol Summit of 2011, sugarcane produced more than twice as much ethanol per hectare — roughly 2.5 acres — than corn. In addition 90 percent of cars in Brazil today are flex-fuel cars, Rodrigues said.

“We were driving through the sugar fields in a rented Chevrolet, a flex-fuel vehicle, and I thought, ‘Why can I do this in Brazil when I can’t do this in the United States,” Sesno said, describing a trip he took to Brazil.

The Brazilian industry faces the issue of a fuel supply attached to uncertain harvests.

In 2009, Brazil suffered from heavy rain, Rodrigues said, and much of the harvest had to be abandoned in the fields. In 2010, a drought diminished production.

However, Rodrigues pointed to technological advances that made it possible to produce more sugarcane on less land and has resulted in bumper crops.

Even after the climatic events of 2009 and 2010, Brazil still increased production of ethanol by about seven percent in 2010.

One thought on “Brazilian Ethanol: A Viable Model?

  1. Pingback: Corn ethanol may heighten food scarcity for world’s poor | The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism

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