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With brazilian biofuels on the rise, can we keep ethanol green?


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Artigo publicado pelo pesquisador do IAC, Heitor Cantarella, foi publicado no portal Financial Times, em 26 de fevereiro de 2018.

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With brazilian biofuels on the rise, can we keep ethanol green?

  1. 1. Sugarcane being harvested on a farm in São Paulo state, Brazil. Cutting the emissions caused during biofuel production is essential in meeting broader emission reduction targets © Bloomberg Heitor Cantarella FEBRUARY 26, 2018 As Brazil strives to meet its targets under the Paris Agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, a new biofuel policy has been approved by President Michel Temer. The “RenovaBio” law, signed into effect in January, aims to stimulate the production of biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and biogas, and provides fiscal incentives and targets for the reduction of emissions. This is welcome news to the sugarcane mills and ethanol producers that have struggled to compete with subsidised gasoline: it has been reported that a fifth of all mills have ground to a halt in Brazil’s centre-south region since 2010. Employment will be stimulated, and up to $500bn in investment is expected to be attracted. Opinion beyondbrics With Brazilian biofuels on the rise, can we keep ethanol green? Switching to biofuels cuts direct greenhouse gas emissions but what of indirect ones?
  2. 2. But as the markets ready themselves for a spike in demand, how can we ensure the long-term viability of biofuel as an alternative energy source? To make the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels a sound move both economically and environmentally, we need to keep in check the emissions made in its production. Although the direct emissions caused by the use of biofuels are up to 90 per cent lower than those of gasoline or diesel fuels, the indirect emissions associated with production and land clearing for sugarcane cropping vary greatly and can be significant. For example, nitrogen fertiliser used in growing sugarcane accounts for up to 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with ethanol production. By devoting attention to limiting such indirect emissions, the net benefits of shifting to biofuel could be significantly improved. Until recently, there were no reliable figures for emissions associated with sugarcane production. Our work at the Agronomic Institute in Campinas, São Paulo state, has set about changing this. We found that, by stabilising fertiliser with compounds that slow the conversion of ammonia to nitrates, known as nitrification inhibitors, we can reduce nitrous oxide emissions by up to 95 per cent. Such innovations and simple interventions have the potential to make ethanol greener and help Brazil to reach its ambitious emissions reduction target. Another concern involves the need to plant more sugarcane to meet biofuel demand. Land clearing for agriculture is estimated to account for about 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Thankfully, this will not be the case in Brazil, where the law demands that between 20 beyondbrics Emerging markets guest forum beyondbrics is a forum on emerging markets for contributors from the worlds of business, finance, politics, academia and the third sector. All views expressed are those of the author(s) and should not be taken as reflecting the views of the Financial Times.
  3. 3. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved. and 80 per cent of land be preserved, depending on the ecological area. Our agriculture is therefore based on the premise that we must produce more by making existing farmland as productive as possible. According to data from the national fertiliser industry association, ANDA, between 1975 and 2016 approximately 130m hectares have been spared from conversion to farmland thanks to the uptake of a range of smart technologies such as improved seeds and the proper and efficient use of fertiliser. In Brazil, the use of fertiliser is rarely considered an ally in the fight against climate change — but for this very reason it should be. Fertilisers used in a sustainable way can help us to be more productive on the farmland we already have, avoiding the need to expand farming areas. The fertiliser industry has developed the 4R nutrient stewardship principles (using the right source of nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place) to help farmers improve their fertiliser management and get higher yields while lowering their environmental impact. RenovaBio could revitalise biofuel markets and go a long way to helping Brazil in its quest for a low emissions future. We must make sure that reducing emissions at the production stage, producing more on less land and incorporating new technologies, are also part of this plan, or we risk losing the benefits of switching from fossil fuels in the first place. Dr Heitor Cantarella is director of the Soil and Environmental Resources Center at the Agronomic Institute of Campinas in Brazil