Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Direct impacts on local climate of sugar-cane expansion in Brazil


The increasing global demand for biofuels will require conversion of conventional agricultural or natural ecosystems. Expanding biofuel production into areas now used for agriculture reduces the need to clear natural ecosystems, leading to indirect climate benefits through reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and faster payback of carbon debts1. Biofuel expansion may also cause direct, local climate changes by altering surface albedo and evapotranspiration2, but these effects have been poorly documented. Here we quantify the direct climate effects of sugar-cane expansion in the Brazilian Cerrado, on the basis of maps of recent sugar-cane expansion and natural-vegetation clearance combined with remotely sensed temperature, albedo and evapotranspiration over a 1.9 million km2 area. On a regional basis for clear-sky daytime conditions, conversion of natural vegetation to a crop/pasture mosaic warms the cerrado by an average of 1.55 (1.45–1.65) °C, but subsequent conversion of that mosaic to sugar cane cools the region by an average of 0.93 (0.78–1.07) °C, resulting in a mean net increase of 0.6 °C. Our results indicate that expanding sugar cane into existing crop and pasture land has a direct local cooling effect that reinforces the indirect climate benefits of this land-use option.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Recent changes in natural vegetation and sugar cane in the Brazilian Cerrado.
Figure 2: Climate effects of land-use transitions.
Figure 3: Means and quantiles of fractional change in land cover versus changes in MODIS variables scatter plots for all grid cells.


  1. Field, C. B., Campbell, J. E. & Lobell, D. B. Biomass energy: The scale of the potential resource. Trends Ecol. Evol. 23, 65–72 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bonan, G. B. Forests and climate change: Forcings, feedbacks, and the climate benefits of forests. Science 320, 1444–1449 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Searchinger, T. et al. Use of US croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land-use change. Science 319, 1238–1240 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S. & Hawthorne, P. Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science 319, 1235–1238 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Gibbs, H. K. et al. Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: The effects of changing yield and technology. Environ. Res. Lett. 3, 034001 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Georgescu, M., Lobell, D. B. & Field, C. B. Potential impact of US biofuels on regional climate. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L21806 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Georgescu, M., Lobell, D. & Field, C. Direct climate effects of perennial bioenergy crops in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 4307–4312 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Olson, D. M. & Dinerstein, E. The Global 200: A representation approach to conserving the Earth’s most biologically valuable ecoregions. Conserv. Biol. 12, 502–515 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Eiten, G. The cerrado vegetation of Brazil. Bot. Rev. 38, 201–341 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. LAPIG Laboratorio de Processamento de Imagens e Geoprocessamento. Programa Cerrado (Universidade Federal de Goias, 2008); available at


  12. Macedo, I. C., Seabra, J. E. A. & Silva, J. Green house gases emissions in the production and use of ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil: The 2005/2006 averages and a prediction for 2020. Biomass Bioenerg. 32, 582–595 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Fearnside, P. M. et al. Biomass and greenhouse-gas emissions from land-use change in Brazil’s Amazonian. Forest Ecol. Manag. 258, 1968–1978 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Lapola, D. M. et al. Indirect land-use changes can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 3388–3393 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Barona, E., Ramankutty, N., Hyman, G. & Coomes, O. T. The role of pasture and soybean in deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 024002 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was made possible through the support of the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.R.L., D.B.L. and C.B.F. designed the study and conducted the analysis. Q.M. contributed data sets. S.R.L., D.B.L., C.B.F., G.P.A. and Q.M. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott R. Loarie.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1808 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Loarie, S., Lobell, D., Asner, G. et al. Direct impacts on local climate of sugar-cane expansion in Brazil. Nature Clim Change 1, 105–109 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing