20 Mar 2023
There was a sense of hope and great relief at COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, in November 2022, when Brazil’s newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pledged to end deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by 2030.
“There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon. We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and degradation of our biomes by 2030”, Lula stated.
Lula and his administration are already facing countless tough new challenges trying to curb deforestation in the region. This task may not be as simple as it seemed, requiring taking sensible and robust measures in order to reverse the past years’ dismantling of environmental laws.
Lula’s government is trying to seize a tremendously lucrative opportunity, hoping to promote and develop a bioeconomy in the Amazon. One of the sectors bringing high investments to the region is the biofuel industry.
The Brazilian government’s decision to open the Amazon to the expansion of biofuel production, whilst lucrative, is extremely concerning. According to scientists and their studies, the socio-environmental impacts of this industry may be catastrophic and a catalyst to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, water use, soil degradation, land use conflicts and deforestation.
In Brazil, leading scientists and researchers, Lucas Ferrante and Philip Fearnside, mentioned that phasing out oil and gas on the schedule imposed by the 1.5C global heating limit, means that Brazil, like many other countries, must adjust its energy plans across several areas, including biofuels.
According to both scientists, the Amazon will need protection from deforestation for growing sugar cane and palm oil and must use its zoning mechanism to exclude these plantations from the region. Ferrante and Fearnside call for importing countries to refuse purchasing biofuels produced in the Amazon.
The production of fuel ethanol in Brazil reached 7.42 billion gallons in 2022, representing 26 percent of the global output.
Corn ethanol production in Brazil increased by almost 800% in the last five years, gone from 520 million liters in the 2017/18 to 4.5 billion in the 2022/23, and expected to reach 10 billion liters by 2030, as stated by CNI, the National Confederation of Industry.
Brazil’s Historic Addiction to Alcohol
Brazil is the second largest fuel ethanol producer globally (behind the United States) since 2002.
The country’s relationship with the ethanol industry is undoubtedly solid and goes back as early as the 1920s, when the government began funding research using ethanol in cars. In 1975, the military government created the National Ethanol Program (Proálcool) and in 1979 it came to develop and launch ethanol-fuelled cars.
In order to cut down greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050, Brazil launched a program in 2017, Renovabio, demanding fuel distributors to purchase biofuel credits, known as CBIOs, to meet their decarbonisation targets.
There are a number of controversial views among experts highlighting possible adverse environmental and social side effects as a result of this program.
Renovabio was criticised about the number of CBIOs that need to be purchased set by the government. As there’s no proportionate quota for the number that needs to be created, affecting availability and driving fuel costs up to distributors, consequently passing it on to consumers. Additionally, there’s also a possibility that high credit prices will drive a large number of new ethanol projects in the country.
In April 2022, a study published at the Resources, Conservation and Recycling indicated that the Renovabio policy does not cover the impacts of land use change (LUC) through its life cycle assessment (LCA), for calculating greenhouse emissions from biofuel, moving in the opposite direction of international policies.
Land use change and deforestation accounted for 45% of Brazil’s 2019 greenhouse gas emissions (Observatório do Clima, 2020).
According to researchers from Lancaster University, if the world relies on carbon offsetting and the hope of future technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere, rather than reducing emissions at source, then up to 1.4°C extra warming could occur.
In January, the result of a joint investigation by The Guardian, Source Material and the German Die Zeit, suggested that carbon offsets approved by Verra, the world’s leading carbon credit certifier, are worthless. Based on the analysis, more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits do not represent genuine carbon reductions.
Investors, financiers, banks, corporations and governments, love the idea of carbon offsetting, as it generates capital, a new profitable trading sector for them to explore.
Biofuels – An Alternate Perspective
Biofuels are made from renewable biomass, based on agricultural products, including sugar cane, corn, castor bean, palm oil and raw materials of animal origin.
“We need to increase the percentage of biodiesel in diesel, it is at 10% and has already been 13%, it was reduced in the last government,” said Geraldo Alckmin, Brazil’s Vice-president in February.
Biofuel mandates in several countries have created an insatiable market for crops, such as corn, sugar cane, palm oil, grains and many more.
The Czech Republic has taken a completely different approach. In March 2022, their government decided to end its mandate requiring ethanol to be blended with petrol, a measure taken in order to address the increasing cost of fuel and food. Germany and Belgium are considering easing biofuel-blending mandates to address food security.
According to a Brussels-based environmental campaigns group, Transport & Environment, the FAO Food Price index for vegetable oils reached an all time high in 2021, increasing by over 70%, compared to the previous five years. For cereal (wheat and corn), the increase was by over a third in 2021.
For many of these vegetable oils and cereal, the price increase is linked to the demand for biofuels, which is driven by flawed policies based on the belief that biofuels can help bring greenhouse gas emissions down in the transport sector – which they don’t.
Maik Marahrens, biofuels manager at Transport & Environment, said:
“Right now we surrender vast swathes of land for crops that we simply burn in our cars. It’s a scandalous waste. This land could feed millions of people or, if given back to nature, provide carbon sinks rich in biodiversity. Crop biofuels are probably the dumbest thing ever promoted in the name of the climate,”
“Biofuels are a failed experiment. To continue to burn food as fuel while the world is facing a growing global food crisis is borderline criminal. Countries like Germany and Belgium are discussing limiting food crop biofuels in response. The rest of Europe must follow suit”, added Marahrens.
Dr. Giuseppe Bagnato, lecturer in chemical engineering at school of engineering at Lancaster University, has been working in biofuel productions since 2010. During our conversation this month, he mentioned:
“Edible biomass, such as food crops, cannot be considered as long strategy for biofuel production, due to land use, water footprint, the environmental impact, an example is deforestation for palm oil tree cultivation, also leading to price competition between its use as fuel or food,”
“Local governments and businesses across society must accept that the transition to a sustainable future should be driven by investment through the circular economy: waste valorisation for producing goods and services for our community,” he added.
According to the late professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, Dr. David Pimentel, and his countless studies, there is simply not enough land, water and energy to produce biofuels.
There are also a number of environmental problems linked to converting crops for biofuels, including water pollution from fertilisers and pesticides, global warming, air pollution and soil erosion.
Pimentel did some calculations, adding all the imports for the production of ethanol, including machinery, seeds, labour, water, electricity, fertiliser, insecticide, fuel, electricity and transport. He discovered that to produce 1 litre of fuel-graded ethanol (5,130 kcal), it would require an energy input of 6,600 kcal, making biofuel production a negative energy process.
The authors of the study, Biofuels Ignite Food Crisis Debate, concluded the following:
“Growing crops for biofuels not only ignores the need to reduce natural resource consumption, but exacerbates the problem of malnourishment worldwide by turning food grain into biofuels. Increased use of biofuels further damages the global environment and especially the world food system.”
The results of a US study, Environmental Outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard, demonstrated that high demand for crops for use as biofuel feedstock and the associated changes to landscapes may also endanger broader environmental disservices upon ground and surface waters, soil resources, and other ecosystem components.
Brazilian Biofuel Companies & Human Rights Violations
According to an investigation by Global Witness, Agropalma and Brasil Biofuels (BBF), two Brazilian palm oil giants, were accused of being involved in conflicts with local communities in the state of Pará.
BBF was accused of environmental crimes and conducting violent campaigns to silence indigenous and traditional communities. The company filed over 550 police reports against community members in an attempt to silence the protests of the indigenous peoples.
The company operates at the heart of the Amazon, as well as in the states of Acre, Pará, Rondônia and Roraima. In the Amazon, BBF has two thermoelectric plants and building a new biorefinery, as well as a biodiesel production plant.
Agropalma was linked to evicting communities and land grabbing. The company controls 107,000 hectares of land, the size of 150,000 football fields.
In February, Agropalma had its palm oil certification suspended for violations of the criteria of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO, by IBD, the largest certifier in Latin America.
Palm plantations in the state of Pará cover an area that used to be rainforest, approximately 226,834 hectares, almost the size of Luxembourg.
According to a study by scientists Lucas Ferrante and Philip Fearnside, published by Regional Environmental Change journal, biofuel companies, including Millenium Bioenergia, are consolidating a production chain of biofuels and food products from monocultures in Amazonian Indigenous lands and other traditional communities.
Millenium announced that it would “partner” with indigenous and traditional communities, offering them unpaid work to produce corn, fish, chickens, and pigs and confined cattle. This not only violates human rights, but also has the potential to trigger new pandemics as a result of zoonotic leaps due to environmental degradation.
We all have a common goal, which is incredibly challenging, to fight climate change by protecting what we have left of our fauna and flora, the indigenous and traditional communities, and avoid further biodiversity decline, deforestation and devastation.
Transitioning from fossil fuels into biofuels seems to be the easiest and most profitable solution, but a number of studies suggest that this may not be the perfect solution and may impact heavily on all our lives, including food security, water scarcity, land use and the environment.
Growing food for energy seems completely and utterly irrational. This is not a green technology.
Why do governments continue to subsidise this industry?
Our leaders, governments and corporations must understand that the price to save our planet will be costly in the short to mid-term, but profitable and essential in the long run.
This must be a transparent process, involving willpower, a long range strategic plan and large amount of investment; otherwise, we may be faced with a chaotic scenario in which humanity will be forced to pay in ways that go beyond money!