Brazil, America can help solve climate challenge

Brazil and America can work together to develop global solutions on the road to a low-carbon transportation future, writes Leticia Phillips. This column appears in the December issue of EPM.
By Leticia Phillips | November 12, 2015

International attention turns toward Paris as the United Nation’s COP21 climate summit convenes, bringing us closer than ever to an international agreement curbing emissions to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. While the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions of most countries to the UN process focus on electricity generation or land use, Brazil’s INDC underlines the impact biofuels can have in meeting the world’s decarbonization goals, and may inspire other nations seeking sustainable economic growth.

In its INDC, Brazil targets greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 with further reductions by 2030. Biofuels are critical to this effort, and will increase their share of the country’s overall energy mix to approximately 18 percent by 2030 through increased ethanol supply, second-generation biofuels, and more biodiesel in the fuel mix.

Biofuels can lower global transportation emissions. The Brazilian experience highlights the transformative power of biofuels to reduce emissions. The World Energy Council reports fossil fuels generate 63 percent of total global emissions, with transportation fuel generating 28 percent of U.S. emissions and 17 percent of Brazilian emissions.

This impact extends beyond ground transport, and the international aviation industry has accordingly committed to carbon-neutral growth through 2020 before declining 50 percent by 2050. This is a particularly exciting application for clean transportation, as multiple companies are developing cellulosic ethanol drop-in fuels for use in any amount with current engines, fueling stations and pipelines. 

Ethanol has consistently been proven the cheapest and most efficient fuel feedstock produced at a commercial scale to replace fossil-based transportation fuel. The U.S. EPA has certified sugarcane ethanol 90 percent cleaner than conventional gasoline on a full life-cycle basis, a finding repeatedly confirmed by life-cycle analyses from around the world.

Sugarcane is a leading source of renewable energy in Brazil, supplying over 16 percent of total energy needs and replacing 40 percent of gasoline needs with ethanol, all while using less than 1.5 percent of the country’s arable land. Indeed, improvements in using sugarcane waste (bagasse) could supply more than 20 percent of domestic electricity demand by 2023, up from just 3 percent today.

Some commercial biofuel technologies can reach virtually zero emissions, and recently introduced production techniques and technologies that could make sugarcane ethanol and advanced cellulosic fuels emissions-negative in the foreseeable future. Considering these facts, it’s hard to argue with claims that every gallon of biofuel creates long-term climate benefits as well as short-term public health benefits.

Ethanol production can ramp up to meet demand. Even with increased demand for sugarcane ethanol under Brazil’s INDC pledge and expected global demand, scalability won’t become an issue. Since 2011, export volumes to the U.S have reached as high as 541 million gallons in a single year with comparable European exports.

Brazil’s National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels estimates installed capacity over 5 billion gallons anhydrous and 4.6 billion gallons hydrous ethanol, based on 383 producing mills, meaning installed capacity was nearly double actual daily output.

Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol producers are investing over $3.5 billion through 2017 in new pipeline, inland waterways and port facilities. Brazil produced 7.3 billion gallons of ethanol in the 2014 harvest season, and preliminary figures for 2015-’16 estimate 7.8 billion gallons of output. In addition, agricultural productivity is increasing, and the Center for Cane Technology estimates it will grow from 7,100 liters per hectare today to 24,500 liters per hectare by 2025.

In this light, sugarcane ethanol can potentially reshape global fuel markets and their resulting emissions as part of an international climate deal. More than 100 countries grow sugarcane, and most could produce and use ethanol. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, only 10 percent of land worldwide available and suitable for cane production is used for sugarcane cultivation.

Together, America and Brazil can help solve the climate challenge. Reducing transportation sector emissions is key to Brazil’s climate goals, but it’s also central to America, Europe, and China’s INDCs. In a joint statement issued June 30 by Presidents Obama and Rousseff, America and Brazil pledged to increase their biofuels consumption, endorsed cooperation in the “priority area” of biofuels, and “recognized the role biofuels can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Together, America and Brazil have built a global biofuels market, showing pragmatic policy can create economic growth and environmental benefits. Now it’s time to turn our experience as the world’s two biggest ethanol producers toward the world’s climate challenge. Let’s work together to develop global solutions encouraging production and consumption, investment and innovation, and smart policy on the road to a low-carbon transportation future.

Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative,
Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, UNICA