Sunday, September 23, 2007

Even in Brazil "the remedy may be worse than the sickeness"

There's no such thing as a "no-brainer" when it comes to finding real solutions to the climate change challenge. Solar and wind energy technologies have demonstrated their technical feasibility over and over. Yet solar is still prohibitively expensive for many applications, and wind projects are difficult to site due to their visual impacts. Biomass fuel is certainly renewable, but the the technology still relies on combustion that results in the creation of emissions. The list goes on.

Biofuels continue to generate mixed reviews. They usually fall along the lines of: Good for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions; not so good for the environment closer to the ground.

Brazil has held out as a model for the way in which it has integrated sugarcane-generated ethanol into its infrastructure -- clearly a success when measured in terms of economics and effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, as the following article points out, the news is far from being all good.

By the way, check out the October 2007 issue of National Geographic for more on this topic. The cover story is "Green Dreams: Growing Fuel the Wrong Way, The Right Way". (GW)

Ethanol Seen Good For Climate, Maybe Not Environment

By Kenneth Rapoza, Dow Jones Newsires
September 17, 2007

SERTAOZINHO, Brazil (Dow Jones)--Brazil's Environmental Minister Marina Silva, long seen as unfriendly toward Brazilian agribusiness, told the press at a sugar and ethanol conference Monday that Brazil ethanol production is drastically cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Ethanol is an alternative for reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, and is a major contribution to decarbonizing countries that are heavy fossil fuel users," Silva told reporters.

However, another ministry official said that while ethanol might be beneficial for climate change, it remains to be seen whether ethanol is good for the environment.

Over the last three years, reductions in deforestation and increased ethanol use has reduced Brazil's CO2 emissions by 500 million tons, Silva said. That's roughly 30% of all CO2 reductions being required of richer nations.

Silva said that between 2003 and 2004, Brazilian agribusiness and the civilian population cut down 27,000 square kilometers of forest. In 2005 the number declined to 18,000 square kilometers; in 2006, 14,000 square kilometers, and Silva said the number should be around 9,000 square kilometers in 2007.

Silva didn't say whether the increase in ethanol-powered automobiles was a major factor in reducing Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

The number one contributor to deforestation, especially in the Amazon region, home to the world's largest rainforest, is the lumber and cattle industry.

Sugarcane ethanol's impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions is undisputed, said Adriano Santhiago de Oliveira, a top official at the newly created climate change and environment department at the Environmental Ministry.

"Without a doubt, ethanol is good for greenhouse gases, but a lot more work has to be done," stated Oliveira.

Oliveira said that agribusiness is responsible for 25% of Brazil's total carbon emissions. Some of that is due to fertilizer production and burning of sugarcane fields to facilitate the harvest of sugarcane plants.

"The sugar and ethanol industry is actually a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, despite being a force in reducing overall contributions nationwide," Oliveira said, adding that ethanol isn't as green as people might like to think.

Oliveira said his department was studying whether ethanol and biofuels ingeneral, such as the use of vegetable oils to make fuel, are harmful for the environment.

Egon Krakhecke, secretary of sustainable agriculture at the Brazilian environmental ministry, told a gathering of sugarcane and ethanol executives on Monday that he was cautious about biofuels. "The remedy could be worse than the sickness, and we have to look into this further," he said.

Krakhecke was more interested in whether sugarcane was harmful to the environment rather than climate change. He mentioned the impact of sugarcane expansion on Brazil's groundwater.

Experts said that potassium in fertilizer could be harmful to Brazilian aquifers.

Marcos Jenk, president of Brazil's Union of Sugarcane Industries, or Unica, said the government needs to have more uniform policies. As it is, municipalities, state, federal laws and even federal departments such as agriculture and the environment, often have opposing views on sustainable agriculture.

These policies affect the way farmers and large agroindustries plan their crops.

Jenk's comment received a round of applause by the country's largest cane producers.

Krakhecke says the problem is many small and midsize sugarcane industries simply break environmental laws. "Not all do this, but a lot of them do," he said.

Jenk said that Unica's main concern is the environmental sustainability of Brazil's ethanol industry. Brazil's government views ethanol much the way oil-producing nations view petroleum.

Brazil is the world's No. 1 sugarcane ethanol producer and exporter, exporting 3 billion liters to the U.S. and Europe.

Source: Kenneth Rapoza, Dow Jones Newswires; 55-11-8473-5075;


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