The trouble with Brazil’s much-celebrated ethanol ‘miracle’
This is a post about Brazil's sugarcane-ethanol "miracle," but I can't resist starting off with a look askance at our own corn-derived ethanol phenomenon. Has there ever been a "green" technology more ecologically discredited than corn-based ethanol?
It may yield slightly more energy than it consumes during production--but only if you grant a generous credit to distillers grains, an ethanol byproduct now busily being shoveled into CAFOs (and exported to China) as a highly dubious livestock feed. But corn ethanol's unimpressive energy balance makes it a pathetic candidate to displace energy-rich petroleum gasoline.
Moreover, its total greenhouse gas emissions are likely titanic--a fact limply acknowledged by the EPA and then eventually retracted under industry pressure. For the love of God, the stuff is based on industrial corn--by far our biggest user of soil-degrading synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Yet the corn-ethanol behemoth lurches tediously along, forever demanding, and too often commanding, ever-spiralling amounts of government support and arable land. Sigh.
Too bad we're not more like Brazil, where they're displacing petroleum with highly efficient sugarcane-based ethanol ... right? Well, no. In 2006, I co-wrote an article about what Brazil's much-heralded cane ethanol revolution has to teach the United States. The conclusion: not much.
Now comes this blistering report from Foreign Policy magazine exposing the myth that sugarcane ethanol is some sort of environmental panacea.
Before I get to the details, I want to make the point that the biofuel-as-panacea impulse is only possible in society's whose citizens fundamentally don't understand agriculture. Biofuels are hailed as "renewable," because crops can be grown on the same land year after year. But monocrops destroy soil--properly thought of as a non-renewable resource--and require lots of agrichemical poisons. Therefore, industrial-scale biofuels aren't renewable. (Whether biofuels can work sustainably in regional niches, as part of a diverse cropping system, is a different question).
Okay, where was I? In the FP piece, author Nikolas Kozloff jumps right to the point in his lead:
While sugar cane ethanol is certainly less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, the industry's boosters have overlooked one key fact: You've got to plant sugar cane somewhere. One couldn't pick a worse place to harvest cane than Brazil's Atlantic rainforest. There, sugar cane crops have led to deforestation and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions.
He goes on to explain that the flattening of the Atlantic rainforest--distinct from the Amazonian one--stands as the original sin of Portugal's colonization of Brazil. The history of several tropical crops we now take for granted--for example sugarcane and coffee--is essentially the history of razing of that vast forest (twice the size of Texas, with as much biodiversity as the Amazon forest). And this ecological crime was compounded by the use of slave labor, Kozloff reminds us. "The colonists shipped six million African slaves to Brazil to do the cutting," he writes: surely one of the vilest episodes in human history.