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  Ethanol Fuel  

Air Pollution

The widespread use of ethanol brought several environmental benefits to urban centers regarding air pollution. Lead additives to gasoline were reduced through the 1980s as the amount of ethanol blended in the fuel was increased, and these additives were completely eliminated by 1991. The addition of ethanol blends instead of lead to gasoline lowered the total carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, sulfur emissions, and particulate matter significantly. The use of ethanol-only vehicles has also reduced CO emissions drastically. Before the Pró-Álcool Program started, when gasoline was the only fuel in use, CO emissions were higher than 50 g/km driven; they had been reduced to less than 5.8 g/km in 1995. Several studies have also shown that São Paulo has benefit with significantly less air pollution thanks to ethanol's cleaner emissions. Furthermore, Brazilian flex-fuel engines are being designed with higher compression ratios, taking advantage of the higher ethanol blends and maximizing the benefits of the higher oxygen content of ethanol, resulting in lower emissions and improving fuel efficiency.

Water Use and Fertilizers


Ethanol production has also raised concerns regarding water overuse and pollution, soil erosion and possible contamination by excessive use of fertilizers. 

Also, and as a result of legislation and technological progress, the amount of water collected for ethanol production has decreased considerably during the previous years. The overuse of water resources seems a limited problem in general in São Paulo, particularly because of the relatively high rainfall, yet, some local problems may occur. Regarding water pollution due to sugarcane production, Embrapa classifies the industry as level 1, which means "no impact" on water quality.


Field burning

Advancements in fertilizers and natural pesticides have all but eliminated the need to burn fields. Sugarcane fields are traditionally burned just before harvest to avoid harm to the workers, by removing the sharp leaves and killing snakes and other harmful animals, and also to fertilize the fields with ash. There has been less burning due to pressure from the public and health authorities, and as a result of the recent development of effective harvesting machines. In the mid 90s, it was very common to experience quite dense ash rains in cities within the sugarcane's fields during harvest seasons. A 2001 state law banned burning in sugarcane fields in São Paulo state by 2021, and machines will gradually replace human labor as the means of harvesting cane, except where the abrupt terrain does not allow.


Effects of land use change

See also: Indirect land use change impacts of bio fuels

Two studies published in 2008 questioned the benefits estimated in previous assessments regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from sugarcane based ethanol, as the authors consider that previous studies did not take into account the direct and indirect effect of land use changes. The authors found a "bio fuel carbon debt" is created when Brazil and other developing countries convert land in undisturbed ecosystems, such as rain forests, savannas, or grasslands, to bio fuel production, and to crop production when agricultural land is diverted to bio fuel production. This land use change releases more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these bio fuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. Among others, the study analyzed the case of Brazilian grassland being converted for sugarcane ethanol production. The bio fuel carbon debt on converted grassland is estimated to be repaid in 17 years, the least amount of time of the scenarios that were analyzed, as for example, ethanol from US corn was estimated to have a 93 year payback time. The study conclusion is that the net effect of bio fuel production via clearing of carbon-rich habitats is to increase CO2 emissions for decades or centuries relative to fossil fuel use.

Regarding this concern, previous studies conducted in Brazil have shown there are 355 million ha of arable land in Brazil, of which only 72 million ha are in use. Sugarcane is only taking 2% of arable land available, of which ethanol production represented 55% in 2008. Embrapa estimates that there is enough agricultural land available to increase at least 30 times the existing sugarcane plantation without endangering sensible ecosystems or taking land destined for food crops. Most future growth is expected to take place on abandoned pasture lands, as it has been the historical trend in São Paulo state.[6][70][81][82] Also, productivity is expected to improve even further based on current biotechnology research, genetic improvement, and better agronomic practices, thus contributing to reduce land demand for future sugarcane cultures. This trend is demonstrated by the increases in agricultural production that took place in São Paulo state between 1990 and 2004, where coffee, orange, sugarcane and other food crops were grown in an almost constant area.


Other criticism have focused on the potential for clearing rain forests and other environmentally valuable land for sugarcane production, such as the Amazonia, the pantanal or the grassland. Embrapa and UNICA have rebutted this concern explaining that 99.7% of sugarcane plantations are located at least 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) from the Amazonia, and expansion during the last 25 years took place in the Center-South region, also far away from the Amazonia, the Pantanal or the Atlantic forest. In São Paulo state growth took place in abandoned pasture lands.

Sugarcane has had an important social contribution to the some of the poorest people in Brazil by providing income usually above the minimum wage, and a formal job with fringe benefits. Formal employment in Brazil accounts an average 45% across all sectors, while the sugarcane sector has a share of 72.9% formal jobs in 2007, up from 53.6% in 1992, and in the more developed sugarcane ethanol industry in São Paulo state formal employment reached 93.8% in 2005. Average wages in sugar cane and ethanol production are above the official minimum wage



Typical sugarcane worker during the harvest season, São Paulo state


Effect on food prices

Main article: Food vs. fuel

Some environmentalists, such as George Monbiot, have expressed fears that the marketplace will convert crops to fuel for the rich, while the poor starve and bio fuels cause environmental problems.[204] Environmental groups have raised concerns about this trade-off for several years.[168][205][206][207] The food vs. fuel debate reached a global scale in 2008 as a result of the international community's concerns regarding the steep increase in food prices. On April 2008, Jean Ziegler, back then United Nations Special Reporter on the Right to Food, called bio fuels a "crime against humanity",[208][209] a claim he had previously made in October 2007, when he called for a 5-year ban for the conversion of land for the production of bio fuels.  Also on April 2008, the World Bank's President, Robert Zoë lick, stated that "While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And it's getting more and more difficult every day.

An economic assessment report also published in July 2008 by the OECD agrees with the World Bank report regarding the negative effects of subsidies and trade restrictions, but found that the impact of bio fuels on food prices are much smaller. The OECD study is also critical of the limited reduction of GHG emissions achieved from bio fuels produced in Europe and North America, concluding that the current bio fuel support policies would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuel by no more than 0.8% by 2015, while Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% compared to fossil fuels. The assessment calls on governments for more open markets in bio fuels and feedstock’s in order to improve efficiency and lower costs.

A study by the Brazilian research unit of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas regarding the effects of bio fuels on grain prices. Concluded that the major driver behind the 2007–2008 rise in food prices was speculative activity on futures markets under conditions of increased demand in a market with low grain stocks. The study also concluded that expansion of bio fuel production was not a relevant factor and also that there is no correlation between Brazilian sugarcane cultivated area and average grain prices, as on the contrary, the spread of sugarcane was accompanied by rapid growth of grain crops in the country.






Production process


Agricultural Technology

  Milling & Refining

Overall Energy Use

  Prices and effect on oil consumption

Comparison with the United States


Environmental & Social Impacts