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Telling Sugarcane Ethanol's Full Sustainability Story

Leticia Phillips's picture
, Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA)

Leticia Phillips is Representative in North America of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA). UNICA is the leading trade association for the sugarcane industry in Brazil and...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Jan 24, 2014

Sugarcane ethanol fields

The debate over America’s Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), and the role that advanced biofuels like sugarcane ethanol play in meeting our clean energy goals, has largely focused on what the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) appropriate volume targets should be moving forward. 

But centering the debate on volume targets for all biofuels has let two key benefits of advanced biofuels slip out of focus: the potential for non-corn ethanol to drastically cut lifecycle emissions compared to gasoline, and the ability of biofuel feedstocks to be sustainably grown without harming the environment. 

Land-Use Advantages Compared To Corn

Let’s start with emissions reductions, arguably the most important imperative to fighting climate change. EPA certified sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel that cuts emissions 61% compared to gasoline after a careful lifecycle analysis of the entire production-to-consumption process in 2010. 

Examining the “well-to-wheels” impact of this clean fuel shows sugarcane ethanol cut emissions from American drivers 2.2 million tons in 2012, equal to growing 57 million trees for 10 years. By itself, that’s impressive data, but the full sustainability sum is revealed when land-use benefits are included in the equation. 

Sugarcane fields store roughly 60 tons of carbon per hectacre, including above and below ground and soil organic carbon. That is a significant amount of carbon sequestration potential, but it’s made even more impressive because unlike corn, sugarcane only needs to be replanted every six years. This reduces land tilling, cutting the amount of carbon released from the soil. 

In turn, each hectacre of sugarcane produces around 7,000 liters (1,850 gallons) of ethanol, roughly twice the ethanol yield of corn. This means more energy is created on less land with less fuel burned to harvest the crops. 

One step further along the production process, self-sufficient sugarcane mills in Brazil use leftover stalks and leaves (called “bagasse”) to power operations instead of fossil fuels, often producing enough power to sell clean electricity back to the grid. In 2010 alone, bioelectricity from these mills powered the homes of 20 million people. 

Increasing Production Without Increasing Environmental Impacts

And it gets better. Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol production can continue to grow while still protecting its native ecosystems and rainforests. A recent analysis by the international think tank Climate Policy Initiative concluded “there is room to increase Brazilian agricultural production via productivity gains, at no apparent cost to environmental conservation.” 

These key sustainability facts are important to keep in mind when considering Brazil as a reliable partner for supplying Americans with advanced biofuels. Indeed, Brazil has the potential to replace 14% of global transportation fuel demand without altering current sugar production. 

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol plays a modest but important role supplying America with clean renewable fuel, but it also plays an equally important role in creating a healthier and cleaner planet. By 2050, global energy needs could double, potentially increasing emissions 80% – unless we continue to pursue low-carbon and environmentally sustainable fuel options. 

As Congress and the EPA deliberate over the future of the RFS, we hope they’ll consider the entire sustainability story of this advanced biofuel in their decision and set volume targets that continue to encourage the production and consumption of all available biofuels. 

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jan 23, 2014

If Brazilian sugarcane ethanol were truly sustainable they would not need to reduce their national domestic consumption of ethanol and the associated gasoline-ethanol blend standards, nor import corn ethanol from the U.S.  Refer to a recent analysis that identifies these and other gaps in the level of reduced full lifecycle GHG’s actually achieved.  The current combination of Brazil-US imports/exports, the current practice of still significantly burning cane fields (loss of biomass to offset GHG emissions), and apparent lack of co-generation biomass capacity associated with many existing sugar mills/ethanol biorefineries needs to be corrected to validate sustainability and GHG reduction claims.  Only when these GHG performance gaps are corrected should Brazilian sugarcane ethanol be fully classified as a qualifying advanced biofuel within the U.S. and be eligible for the very generous U.S. RIN’s that apparently attract Brazilian ethanol producers.

Leticia Phillips's picture
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