Ethanol Improves Air Quality

FROM THE AUGUST ISSUE: Nations around the globe need to follow Brazil, U.S.'s lead in ethanol adoption to lower GHG emissions.
By Leticia Phillips | August 01, 2019

We celebrated World Environment Day on June 5 and, although the date has passed, I believe the theme of this year’s event, air pollution, still deserves our attention. What are we doing locally, nationally or globally to take care of our environment? In Brazil, sugarcane ethanol has been helping improve air quality in urban centers.

According to the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association’s (UNICA) calculations, between March 2003 (when flex fuel vehicles were introduced into the Brazilian market) and February 2019, the use of sugarcane ethanol reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 535 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. To achieve similar GHG savings, almost 4 billion trees would need to be planted in the next 20 years.

What makes the air quality of cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro different from New Delhi or Shanghai is the use of hydrous (E100) and anhydrous (E27) ethanol. When we evaluate its complete life cycle, sugarcane ethanol provides a 90% reduction in GHG emissions compared to gasoline. Also, compared to gasoline and diesel, ethanol significantly reduces the emissions of various pollutants, like sulfur oxides (by about 90% compared to gasoline, about 99% compared to S500 diesel and 50% compared to S10 diesel), particulate matter (by more than 98% compared to gasoline and diesel), and toxic hydrocarbons.

Ethanol also has low toxicity and is biodegradable. That is, in case of spill or leakage accidents, the environmental impact would be small and the product is biodegraded in a few days.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is recognized globally as one of the least carbon-intensive biofuels currently available at commercial scale. The U.S. EPA recognizes Brazilian ethanol as an advanced biofuel in the Renewable Fuel Standard, capable of GHG emissions savings of 61%. California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard also recognizes ethanol’s benefits. In the European Union, sugarcane ethanol is recognized by the Renewable Energy Directive (both versions) as the first-generation biofuel that reduces emissions more than fossil fuels (70% when placed on the European market). According to RED, sugarcane ethanol has a low risk of indirect land use change. In Japan, our product exceeds the 50% emissions reduction required.

Increasing ethanol blends has been recognized as a way to mitigate GHG emissions and meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement, with several countries setting the blending increase for years to come. As I have shared in my past columns, Brazil already has a National Biofuels Policy (RenovaBio), approved by Congress and expected to come into force in 2020. RenovaBio aims to increase the participation of biofuels, including biodiesel and ethanol made from different raw materials, in the transport matrix with the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 100 million tons in 10 years.

The transport sector is a significant source of GHG emissions globally. Tackling transport emissions is imperative to decreasing air pollution and improving air quality. I believe we need all options available to achieve better air quality, but I am an even stronger believer that ethanol is one of the best options for countries around the globe. Ethanol is here now, cars have the technology necessary to use it, and there is ample safe supply. If we want to decrease air pollution and improve the quality of our environment, we need to continue to promote public policies that will ensure the production and use of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The U.S. and Brazil lead in ethanol production and use in transportation, but more countries need to adopt this solution. The environment will thank us.

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