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
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
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
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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
Dr Heitor Cantarella is director of the Soil and Environmental Resources Center at
the Agronomic Institute of Campinas in Brazil