Brazil biofuels’ land-use issue

UNICA photo

The United States isn’t the only country where the biofuels industry needs to be concerned about it’s carbon footprint. Ethanol and biodiesel production in Brazil could lead to destruction of Amazonian forests, according to a study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists.

Unless ranchers reduce the amount of land it takes to raise cattle there, increased production of sugarcane for ethanol and vegetable oil for biodiesel is going to result in forests being cut down for rangeland, say a group of German scientists who wrote the study.

They estimated that about 47,000 square miles of forests could be destroyed, creating a carbon debt that would take about 250 years to repay. (Iowa is about 56,000 square miles in size.) Cutting down forests releases carbon into the atmosphere offsetting the carbon savings that would occur from replacing fossil fuels with ethanol or biodiesel.

Brazil’s sugarcane industry doesn’t deny that increasing cattle densities could relieve the pressure on rangelands.

A key factor missing in this study and other calculations of land-use impacts in Brazil is that “cattle production and pasture has been intensifying already and is projected to do so in the future,” said Joel Velasco of UNICA, the Brazilian sugarcane industry organization.

Brazil now has about one head of cattle per 2.5 acres and about 200 million head of cattle in total, Velasco said. A 1 percent increase in cattle productivity would free up 500 million acres of land.

This is not a new issue to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has had to rate the carbon emissions of all biofuels, including Brazil’s, to decide whether they could be used to meet the biofuels mandates Congress imposed in 2007.

Because of its energy efficiency, sugarcane ethanol is generally regarded as having a much smaller carbon footprint than U.S. corn ethanol. The EPA last week concluded that the Brazilian product can count as an advanced biofuel in meeting the U.S. biofuel mandates. To rate as an advanced biofuel, ethanol must have 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

The EPA was required by law to consider the land-use issue in its analysis of Brazilian ethanol (as well as U.S. biofuels) and found that more intensive grazing of livestock was going to relieve some of the pressure on forests there. The EPA in its also found in its final analysis of the Brazilian ethanol that the energy needed to produce it had been reduced.