Letter

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an expandable green alternative to crude oil use

  • Nature Climate Change volume 7, pages 788792 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate3410
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Abstract

Reduction of CO2 emissions will require a transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. Expansion of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol1,2 provides one near-term scalable solution to reduce CO2 emissions from the global transport sector. In contrast to corn ethanol, the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol system may offset 86% of CO2 emissions compared to oil use, and emissions resulting from land-use change to sugarcane are paid back in just 2–8 years3,4. But, it has been uncertain how much further expansion is possible given increasing demand for food and animal feed, climate change impacts and protection of natural ecosystems. We show that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol can provide the equivalent of 3.63–12.77 Mb d−1 of crude oil by 2045 under projected climate change while protecting forests under conservation5 and accounting for future land demand for food and animal feed production. The corresponding range of CO2 offsets is 0.55–2.0 Gigatons yr−1. This would displace 3.8–13.7% of crude oil consumption and 1.5–5.6% of net CO2 emission globally relative to data for 20146,7.

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Acknowledgements

D.J. and S.P.L. acknowledge the financial support of the Energy Bioscience Institute and the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, both within the University of Illinois. D.J. acknowledges advice from D. Tanjore of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on calculations related to second-generation ethanol production and J. R. Soares of University of Campinas on issues related to nitrogen in Brazilian sugarcane operation. S.P.L. acknowledges the support of the Newton-Abrahams Visiting Professorship at the University of Oxford, UK.

Author information

Author notes

    • Deepak Jaiswal

    Present address: School of Agricultural Engineering (FEAGRI), University of Campinas, Barão Geraldo, CEP 13083-875, Brazil.

Affiliations

  1. Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Deepak Jaiswal
    • , Amanda P. De Souza
    • , David S. LeBauer
    •  & Stephen P. Long
  2. Department of Botany, Institute of Biosciences, and the Systems and Synthetic Biology Center, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, CEP 05508-090 SP, Brazil

    • Amanda P. De Souza
    •  & Marcos S. Buckeridge
  3. Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, Department of Soil Science, University of São Paulo, Piracicaba (SP), CP 9, CEP 13419-900, Brazil

    • Søren Larsen
    •  & Gerd Sparovek
  4. Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, Section for Forest, Nature and Biomass, University of Copenhagen, Rolighedsvej 23, 1958 Frederiksberg C, Denmark

    • Søren Larsen
  5. Danish Energy Association, Vodroffsvej 59, 1900 Frederiksberg C, Denmark

    • Søren Larsen
  6. National Center for Supercomputing Applications, 1205 W. Clark St., Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • David S. LeBauer
  7. Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University Ames, Iowa 50011, USA

    • Fernando E. Miguez
  8. Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Germán Bollero
    •  & Stephen P. Long
  9. Department of Plant Biology, University of Illinois Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Stephen P. Long
  10. Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK

    • Stephen P. Long

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Contributions

D.J. and S.P.L. led the study and analysis. D.J., A.P.D.S. and S.P.L. drafted the manuscript with support from S.L., D.S.L., F.E.M., G.S., G.B. and M.S.B. S.L. and G.S. assisted with soil, land-use data and developing land-use change model. A.P.D.S. and M.S.B. collected data from the Brazilian literature and databases for evaluating model performance and current status of ethanol industry in Brazil. D.S.L. assisted in obtaining climate data to perform simulations. D.J., F.E.M., G.B. and S.L. contributed to the development of the model to project sugarcane production.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen P. Long.

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