I asked Dr. José Goldemberg, secretary for the environment for São Paulo State and a pioneer of Brazil’s ethanol industry, the obvious question: Is the fact that the U.S. has imposed a 54-cents-a-gallon tariff to prevent Americans from importing sugar ethanol from Brazil “just stupid or really stupid.”
Thanks to pressure from Midwest farmers and agribusinesses, who want to protect the U.S. corn ethanol industry from competition from Brazilian sugar ethanol, we have imposed a stiff tariff to keep it out. We do this even though Brazilian sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it, while American corn ethanol provides only 1.3 times the energy of the fossil fuel used to make it. We do this even though sugar ethanol reduces greenhouses gases more than corn ethanol. And we do this even though sugar cane ethanol can easily be grown in poor tropical countries in Africa or the Caribbean, and could actually help alleviate their poverty.
Yes, you read all this right. We tax imported sugar ethanol, which could finance our poor friends, but we don’t tax imported crude oil, which definitely finances our rich enemies. We’d rather power anti-Americans with our energy purchases than promote antipoverty.
“It’s really stupid,” answered Dr. Goldemberg.
If I seem upset about this, I am. Development and environmental experts have long searched for environmentally sustainable ways to alleviate rural poverty — especially for people who live in places like Brazil, where there is a constant temptation to log the Amazon. Sure, ecotourism and rain forest soap are nice, but they never really scale. As a result, rural people in Brazil are always tempted go back to logging or farming sensitive areas.
Ethanol from sugar cane could be a scalable, sustainable alternative — if we are smart and get rid of silly tariffs, and if Brazil is smart and starts thinking right now about how to expand its sugar cane biofuel industry without harming the environment.
The good news is that sugar cane doesn’t require irrigation and can’t grow in much of the Amazon, because it is too wet. So if the Brazilian sugar industry does realize its plan to grow from 15 million to 25 million acres over the next few years, it need not threaten the Amazon.
However, sugar cane farms are located mostly in south-central Brazil, around São Paulo, and along the northeast coast, on land that was carved out of drier areas of the Atlantic rain forest, which has more different species of plants and animals per acre than the Amazon. Less than 7 percent of the total Atlantic rain forest remains — thanks to sugar, coffee, orange plantations and cattle grazing.
I flew in a helicopter over the region near São Paulo, and what I saw was not pretty: mansions being carved from forested hillsides near the city, rivers that have silted because of logging right down to the banks, and wide swaths of forest that have been cleared and will never return.
“It makes you weep,” said Gustavo Fonseca, my traveling companion, a Brazilian and the executive vice president of Conservation International. “What I see here is a totally human dominated system in which most of the biodiversity is gone.”
As demand for sugar ethanol rises — and that is a good thing for Brazil and the developing world, said Fonseca, “we have to make sure that the expansion is done in a planned way.”
Over the past five years, the Amazon has lost 7,700 square miles a year, most of it for cattle grazing, soybean farming and palm oil. A similar expansion for sugar ethanol could destroy the cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, another incredibly species-rich area, and the best place in Brazil to grow more sugar.
A proposal is floating around the Brazilian government for a major expansion of the sugar industry, far beyond even the industry’s plans. No wonder environmental activists are holding a conference in Germany this fall about the impact of biofuels. I could see some groups one day calling for an ethanol boycott — à la genetically modified foods — if they feel biofuels are raping the environment.
We have the tools to resolve these conflicts. We can map the lands that need protection for their biodiversity or the environmental benefits they provide rural communities. But sugar farmers, governments and environmentalists need to sit down early — like now — to identify those lands and commit the money needed to protect them. Otherwise, we will have a fight over every acre, and sugar ethanol will never realize its potential. That would be really, really stupid.