Bioenergy production from sugarcane can benefit Latin America and Africa | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Bioenergy production from sugarcane can benefit Latin America and Africa In a book resulting from a project supported by FAPESP, researchers appraise the potential of sugarcane bioenergy as a strategy for sustainable development in Latin American, Caribbean and African countries (image: Pixabay)

Bioenergy production from sugarcane can benefit Latin America and Africa

February 06, 2019

By Elton Alisson  |  Agência FAPESP – Although bioenergy is the most consumed renewable source of energy in the world, with roughly the same share of the total as that of hydropower, wind, solar and other renewable sources combined, its production is still well below maximum. Brazil and the United States, for example, together account for more than 80% of the total quantity of liquid biofuels produced worldwide.

“Several countries are also using bioenergy, but production could be far greater. This suggests bioenergy is limited to the few countries with certain specific conditions to develop the source,” said Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a researcher affiliated with the University of Campinas’s Interdisciplinary Energy Planning Center (NIPE-UNICAMP) in Brazil and a member of the steering committee for the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN).

To address this limitation and show that bioenergy can be produced efficiently with economic and social benefits for many countries, Nogueira and colleagues affiliated with NIPE-UNICAMP and other institutions in Brazil and abroad conducted a study for the past five years to assess the potential for expanding sugarcane bioenergy in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa (LACAF Cane). The study was supported by FAPESP.

The results of the LACAF Cane Project, conducted under the aegis of BIOEN, have been compiled in Sugarcane Bioenergy for Sustainable Development. Launched at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo on December 14, 2018, the book contains 33 articles by 60 researchers from Brazil and elsewhere, appraising the potential of sugarcane bioenergy production as a strategy for sustainable development in countries of all three regions, Latin America, the Caribbean’s and Africa.

The regions were chosen because they have highly favorable conditions for production and are strategic to the expansion of bioenergy in the world. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), some 440 million hectares of land will be available globally for use in bioenergy production by 2050. Over 80% of this land is located in Africa and in South and Central America, and approximately 50% are accounted for by seven countries: Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan in Africa; and Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and, above all, Brazil in South America.

“Brazil is by far the country with the most available land on which to grow sugarcane for bioenergy production. It’s a rare example, an atypical case, of high-yield bioenergy production from sugarcane,” said Luis Augusto Barbosa Cortez, a professor at UNICAMP and principal investigator for the project, speaking at a book launch event.

According to the book, in addition to Brazil, other Latin American countries that successfully produce sugarcane bioenergy include Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala.

Like Brazil, Colombia produces high-yield sugarcane and ethanol. Argentina recently started a program to produce bioenergy from sugarcane and corn and has achieved levels of ethanol blend in gasoline close to those of Brazil. Surprisingly, for a small country, Guatemala is a major producer of sugarcane, exports ethanol to the US, and imports all the gasoline it needs.

In Africa, the most successful producers of sugarcane bioenergy have been South Africa, currently the continent’s leading producer of sugarcane, and Mauritius, Malawi, and, more recently, Mozambique.

A large proportion of the population in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa do not yet have access to electricity or clean energy for cooking. In southern Africa, for example, 59 million people are estimated to use charcoal for cooking. This results in serious health and environmental problems, including deforestation. “Clean energy for cooking in Africa could be bioenergy,” Nogueira said.

In southern Africa, the demand for ethanol for cooking is far higher than the demand for ethanol for automotive fuel in the cities, where as many as 90% of the population use low-quality sources of energy for cooking in unhealthy conditions, according to the researchers, who estimate that a typical family in the region needs 360 liters of ethanol to run a cooking stove.

“Production of cooking ethanol has been tried in some African countries, such as Mozambique, but these programs eventually failed for lack of sufficient output. If enough ethanol is available for this use, the market will certainly absorb the product,” Nogueira said.

In Mozambique, the researchers estimate that a production of 4.1 billion liters of ethanol from sugarcane and 2.7 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year would create 3.3 million jobs and boost the gross domestic product (GDP) by 28%. Producing these amounts of ethanol and electricity would require sugarcane to be grown on 600,000 hectares, or less than 3% of the land available to grow sugarcane in Mozambique.

“The country has enough suitable land available to expand sugarcane production without impairing other uses, such as food and animal feed production. It’s wrong to claim that bioenergy production would compete with food production,” Nogueira said.

The inclusion of small producers should be part of the production model in countries that pursue bioenergy from sugarcane, according to Manoel Regis Lima Verde Leal, a professor at UNICAMP and one of the book’s authors, alongside Cortez and Nogueira.

Sugarcane is grown by small producers on properties of less than ten hectares everywhere in the world except Brazil, Australia and the US. “India, which is the world’s second-largest producer of sugarcane today, has 5 million hectares under sugarcane and 50 million growers,” Leal said.

Participation in global debate

FAPESP’s Scientific Director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, said that studies like the one conducted by the researchers responsible for the LACAF Cane Project have enabled research on bioenergy conducted in São Paulo State to be a part of the global debate on the sustainability of bioenergy from sugarcane.

Less than a decade ago, Brazilian researchers contributed much less to this global debate. “Studies like this one help researchers in the field in São Paulo State to participate in and even lead the worldwide discussion about the necessary conditions for large-scale production of bioenergy from sugarcane in other regions of the planet,” Brito Cruz said.

The BIOEN Program completes ten years in 2019 and has so far resulted in more than 1,000 publications. The impact of the scientific articles published by 2013 led to an invitation for researchers linked to the program to coordinate a study on global bioenergy sustainability for the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of the International Council for Science (ICSU), a nongovernmental organization that collaborates closely with United Nations agencies such as UNESCO and UNEP.

“The production of these studies has genuinely helped project the results of research on bioenergy in São Paulo State on the global forums that discuss the topic,” said Gláucia Mendes Souza, a professor at IB-USP and a member of BIOEN’s steering committee.

Sugarcane Bioenergy for Sustainable Development
Published: 2018
Price: US$120
Pages: 418
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