Options Summer 2020: Brazil could potentially expand biofuel production without significantly affecting food production or increasing adverse land use impacts and deforestation, according to a recent IIASA study.

Biofuels are often considered essential for meeting increasing energy demands while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. However, long-standing concerns have moderated the perception of their efficacy, as clearing native vegetation to grow biofuel crops leads to significant carbon emission increases, sometimes even more than traditional fossil fuels. In the 1970s Brazil embraced biofuels and consequently established itself as the global leader in biofuel production, until the US launched its own program in the early 2000s. Future demand may however lead the country to increase its sugar cane plantations by a further 5 million hectares by 2030.

As part of a Young Summer Scientists Program project, IIASA researchers modeled potential increases in ethanol production with respect to key influencing drivers, such as population growth and energy efficiency. They found that increased sugarcane production could be done largely in pasturelands and natural vegetation areas. As such, the study shows that Brazil could increase production without significantly affecting food production or increasing deforestation. However, the changing political landscape could reduce environmental protections that are vital to sustainable biofuel production in Brazil.

"Biofuel policies have triggered very legitimate concerns in terms of sustainability,” explains Hugo Valin, a researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program. “Sugar cane is one of the most efficient ways to produce ethanol, and land use change impacts should remain limited in the case of Brazil.

However, we must remain vigilant as Brazil’s political context is constantly changing and it remains to be seen if environmental safeguards will be maintained.”