By Antonio José Ferreira Simões
Published: August 6, 2007
The first decades of the 20th Century heralded the automobile era. At
the time, it was said that it would not be safe to trade the reliability
of a horse for the uncertainty of an automobile. After all, the horse
was always available and ran on alfalfa, clearly an abundant raw
material. It was then too risky to trust gasoline, some argued, since it
could become scarce in a few years.
Today, as we are again facing the challenges of changing our energy
matrix, it is important to clearly establish what is reality and what is
myth regarding biofuels.
The reality is that if we maintain the current rate of oil consumption
without major reductions in carbon emissions, we will surely be heading
in the direction of unprecedented climate change and natural disasters.
It is also a fact that if oil demand continues to increase, prices will
skyrocket, terribly affecting poor countries. The International Energy
Agency itself admits that increasing demand and irregular supply will
impose additional pressure on prices, which in turn will also be
affected by higher extraction costs of new reserves (deep waters, heavy
and extra-heavy oil). Additionally, the increase in oil prices will have
serious consequences on the price of food products. More expensive
fertilizers will become less accessible to farmers in poor countries.
Sharp increases in transportation costs will reduce the access to food
for millions. Therefore, higher oil prices will surely mean less food
One of the most common myths is that biofuels will necessarily compete
with food production. Nowadays, the largest food producers are the
developed countries that strongly subsidize their agriculture. In
developing countries, with few exceptions, large scale food production
does not occur: They simply cannot compete with rich countries'
agricultural subsidies. It is more cost-effective to import products
offered as food aid from developed countries, or sold at subsidized
prices, than to produce locally.
Production of biofuels in developing countries would change this
picture. Large extensions of unutilized arable land in the Southern
Hemisphere would be employed for highly profitable biofuel-oriented
crops, restructuring the agricultural sector. Millions of jobs would be
generated, thus increasing income, exports and food purchasing power of
the poorest. Furthermore, production of biofuels in the South would help
avoid redirecting the use of food-producing land in the North for this
In Brazil, biofuels production has grown alongside with increasing food
crops. It is lack of income that fuels hunger, not the use of biofuels.
Experience has proven that Biofuels production generates income,
increasing food consumption. The Brazilian ethanol industry generates
one million direct jobs and up to six million indirect jobs. Biodiesel
benefits 224 thousand low-income families.
Another myth is that the production of biofuels threatens the Amazon
rain forest. It should be noted that between 2004 and 2006, a period of
strong growth in the Brazilian biofuels production, the Amazon rain
forest deforestation rate was reduced by 52 percent. Also, large sugar
cane plantations are located at least 1,000 kilometers away from the
Amazon region, where it is not possible to efficiently grow sugar cane,
due to the high humidity, which prevents saccharose from forming.
Biofuels also could contribute to reduce carbon emissions through the
use of degraded lands. In the case of Brazil, we use less than 10
percent of all arable land for sugar cane cultivation. There are,
however, 150 million hectares of degraded pasture land that the
Brazilian Government is working to recover. This land will receive a
vegetal cover from sugar cane, thus contributing to reduce carbon emissions.
In order to ensure that the development of biofuels production takes
place while contributing to the improvement of social and environmental
conditions, as announced by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil
will organize a national technical, social and environmental
certification system. This will allow us to constantly verify the
sustainability of our production.
Nowadays, world energy resources are concentrated in 20 countries.
Biofuels will allow a true democratization of the international market,
as over 100 countries will be producing energy for the world. There is
no doubt about the fact that this is a great change, maybe as
revolutionary as the one that began in the early 20th Century. After
all, the transition from animal traction to petroleum was antipodal to
environmental sustainability. Today, we can correct this and, at the
same time, contribute to the generation of employment and wealth in the
countries of the South - much to the benefit of the global community.
Antonio José Ferreira Simões is the director of the Department of
Energy in Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts: http://pacbiofuel.blogspot.com/