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One hundred million elephants

Eduardo Leão — posted 10/08/2020

Written by Eduardo Leão de Sousa, Executive-Director at UNICA 

The elephant is the heaviest terrestrial animal on our planet. On average, it weighs 5 tonnes. Now, imagine 100 million of them placed on a giant scale, whose balance pan is the size of a large city, such as Mexico City or Bangkok. The result of this hypothetical weighing would still be lower than the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) avoided by the use of ethanol in Brazil over the last 17 years. 

Indeed, about 515 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) were averted from the atmosphere since the flex fuel vehicle technology started in Brazil in 2003, thanks to our ethanol. This biofuel, produced from sugarcane, is capable of reducing up to 90% of GHG emissions when compared to gasoline, and also of resetting the dispersion of air pollutants that are harmful to our health.  

Brazil has a long history of sustainable mobility. In the mid-1970s, we adopted ethanol blending in gasoline and launched automobiles that ran solely on ethanol, in response to the first oil crisis. This way, combustion engines became sustainable. In the beginning of this century, we pioneered large-scale manufacturing and utilization of flex fuel cars and, less than 20 years later, this technology is available in 80% of our fleet. Last year, Brazil took the forefront again by launching the first flex-hybrid vehicle in the world. And there is more to come: new technologies, such as direct-ethanol fuel cell, which extracts hydrogen directly from ethanol to power up the batteries.  

Ethanol can also make a crucial difference to our health. Its clean combustion avoids dispersion of several harmful substances that are emitted by fossil fuels, like the particulate matter (PM 2.5). This pollutant is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and ethanol use has avoided thousands of deaths and hospitalizations due to respiratory or cardiovascular diseases in Brazil. A recent Harvard University study concluded that an additional 1% of these particulate matters in the air increases COVID-19 death rates by 8%.  

Due to our biofuel, if we compare São Paulo — the biggest city in the country — with other global megalopolis of the same size, the difference is abyssal. In New Delhi, India, for example, the average PM 2.5 in 2019 was 99 µg/m³, according to iQAir. In the São Paulo metropolitan region, the average was 5 times lower (17 µg/m³) and under the limit recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 20 µg/m³ of PM 2.5.  

Starting this year, Brazil solidifies the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of this green industry by launching a modern public policy, praised as an example even by the International Energy Agency (IEA). We are talking about the Brazilian Biofuels Policy, called RenovaBio, the world’s largest program to decarbonize the transportation matrix, which became operational this year and established annual goals to reduce carbon intensity by expanding the share of biofuels in the energy matrix or by compensating these emissions with carbon credits known as CBIOs. This is an effective answer to the Paris Agreement, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  

It is imperative to move forward. In a decade, RenovaBio’s goal is to withdraw, through CBIOs, almost 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, allowing the country to fulfill its environmental commitments, a weight equivalent to 150 million elephants. And, like the elephants, recognized for their fabulous memories, we must keep track of the paths that brought us here. Learn from our mistakes and keep doing what worked well, with clear long-term public policies and entrepreneurs who are committed to constant improvement. This way, our hypothetical scale will get bigger and bigger, significantly contributing to reducing the world’s emissions, preventing hundreds of millions of these pachyderms, in the form of greenhouse gases, being released into our atmosphere every year.  

Ethanol will help countries meet GHG goals now

Leticia Phillips — posted 15/07/2020

Policymakers around the world are working on plans which promise to phase out fossil fuels and introduce a carbon neutral environment for future generations. 

The European Union’s Green Deal seeks to make the Continent climate neutral by 2050, a target to be enshrined in the European Climate Law. It calls for a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2030. This target could be further increased to a reduction of 55 percent by 2030, pending adoption of the 2030 Climate Target Plan and an amendment of the European Climate Law.

In the US, a plan released by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at the end of June is equally ambitious and offers a roadmap for policymakers willing to take dramatic action on climate change.

To meet these ambitious goals, countries will rely on available alternatives such as sugarcane ethanol, as well as emerging technologies like electric vehicles (EVs), to fill the void left by fossil fuels.

Sugarcane ethanol is a proven technology for GHG reduction. Brazil’s near-complete adoption of the biofuel has significantly reduced GHG emissions and cleaned the air of pollutants.

The air quality in São Paulo reinforces this point. In 2019, the fourth most populated city in the world ranked 879th in pollution levels – in large part because nearly 80 percent of all cars and light-duty trucks in Brazil run on pure sugarcane ethanol or an ethanol-gas blend.


Carbon emissions from sugarcane ethanol are already the lowest amongst all powertrains in use around the world, and hybrid and flex ethanol can score even better than EVs.

The proposals currently in discussion in the US and EU may place too much of an emphasis on the deployment of EVs, and critics also continue to raise questions about retooling national infrastructures to accommodate millions of EVs.

We must acknowledge that internal combustion vehicles will be on the roads for decades to come, but sugarcane ethanol is a solution which enables drivers to reduce their carbon footprint now.

We wholeheartedly support the continued advancement of different car technologies, like EVs, which move us away from fossil fuels, but we must also accept there is no single solution to tackle the challenges currently facing the transportation sector.  Different countries will need different solutions and policies must reflect this reality.

As leaders debate these climate plans, we urge them to remember that sugarcane ethanol powered vehicles are already among the best performer and that we are committed to keeping it that way. 

The Value of Biofuels in a Post-Covid World

Gonçalo Pereira — posted 02/07/2020

The Covid-19 pandemic will cause us all to think differently about the way we live. When we can enjoy seemingly minor luxuries like eating in a restaurant or walking through a reopened shopping mall a sense of normalcy may return.

The Covid-19 pandemic will cause us all to think differently about the way we live. When we can enjoy seemingly minor luxuries like eating in a restaurant or walking through a reopened shopping mall a sense of normalcy may return.

Until then, we are learning more about the virus and the disease every day. One major finding is that people living in areas with dirty air have a far greater chance of dying of Covid-19.

Work conducted in the United States by Xiau Wu from Harvard University found that an increase of just 1 𝜇g / m3 of particulate matter of 2.5𝜇m (PM2.5) in the air is associated with an 8 percent increase in COVID-19 mortality.

The reasons, although not yet clearly defined, are probably due to syndromes caused by the action of these particles within our body, especially in the lungs and circulatory system. The greater the exposure to this particulate, the greater the mortality.

A second relationship also emerged. The lower the purchasing power, the greater the exposure to dirty air. Initially, researchers believed blacks and Latinos had a genetic predisposition to the Covid-19 disease, but the reality is they are more prone to live in suboptimal environs. 

The culprit is easy to identify. It is the imperfect combustion of the long molecules of fossil fuels which are difficult to be accessed by oxygen. Instead of burning completely, many of these chains bend and roast and give rise to small coals which end up in our lungs. 

The equation is changed for the better when biofuels are added to the mix, especially sugarcane ethanol. The existence of oxygen in this molecule makes internal combustion much more efficient, with a reduction of more than 90 percent in particulate formation. Covid-19 reminds us that biofuels produced from renewable materials are part of the solution to lower atmospheric ity that promise to do grave damage to our respiratory system. 

We can look to Brazil – the world’s second largest ethanol producer – for innovative ideas in promoting biofuels. The use of pure or higher blends sugarcane ethanol in gasoline in the Brazilian light fleet has dramatically improved air quality in the country, especially in the city of São Paulo. Most recently Brazil launched RenovaBio, a program that remunerates biofuel producers with financial securities to be traded on the stock exchange and whose value will depend on the perception of the importance of the environment. But the Covid-induced economic crisis has set a trap. The need for recovery can make us want to price energy sources again just for their pure energy content and not for their externalities. That would be a big mistake, which we need to avoid under the penalty of cultivating new catastrophes.

We will eventually beat Covid-19, but it would be a travesty to ignore what we have just learned about the dynamic between air quality and this respiratory disease. We can no longer simply price ethanol and gasoline as equals. Although both are combustible, their values ​​are very different, and the time is right to recognize it.

Gonçalo Pereira – Full Professor at UNICAMP

Coordinator of the Genomics and BioEnergy Laboratory

Stepping up on biodiversity – learnings from Brazilian sugarcane

Unica Admin — posted 03/06/2020

Brazilian sugarcane producers play a vital role in preserving biodiversity while providing sustainable food, innovative green packaging and solutions for green transport. Delivering on the Paris Agreement climate goals requires an international effort and consideration of all possible solutions. Biodiversity has a critical role in fighting climate change and the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy is an important step to raise the ambitions on this issue at European level and globally through the envisaged UN Global Biodiversity Framework.

Towards a level playing field

The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to protect at least 10% of agricultural land to provide space for wild animals, plants, pollinators and natural pest regulators. The commercial sugarcane industry in Brazil has successfully demonstrated that industries can grow and flourish whilst respecting even higher quotas of biodiversity protection. Over 90% of Brazilian sugarcane production takes place in South-Central Brazil, with the remainder grown along the coast of North-eastern Brazil. In these regions, producers are required by the Forest Code to protect between 20% and 35% of native vegetation as well as the areas bordering rivers (riparian areas) and springs and ensure biodiversity corridors.  Only in São Paulo State, the sugarcane sector has protected more than 200 thousand acres of riparian areas and 8230 springs since 2007.

While the surface of protection proposed by the EU Biodiversity Strategy falls short of what is required of Brazilian producers, we welcome the introduction of such measures as a positive step towards a level playing field.

Helping biodiversity thrive

One of the initiatives that is part of the new strategy, is the implementation of biodiversity corridors. They encourage the growth of native flora and fauna, the return of natural pollinators and the preservation of soil health, all critical elements to ensure the long term success of the habitats. The use of biodiversity corridors was implemented in Brazil a near decade ago with sugarcane producers ensuring their existence and maintenance. These corridors help to protect the habitat of many species, including large mammals such as the jaguar, that in turn help keeping rodent populations in check.[1] 

Sugarcane producers are also increasingly monitoring pollinator populations and are using their permanent preservation areas to enhance habitats for bee populations to thrive. Knowledge sharing with local beekeepers is integral to this initiative, leading to capacity building on both sides.    Moreover, an increasing number of members are successfully applying biological control and thereby minimizing the use of pesticides.

Finally, Brazilian sugarcane producers have developed innovative organic fertilizers as a by-product of sugarcane processing. This is in line with our commitments to promote biodiversity, improve soil health and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Sustainable decarbonization

Increasing and protecting biodiversity supports carbon capture. However, without decarbonizing the energy system in parallel, its benefits are limited. Brazil’s diverse energy mix allows the country to meet 45% of its energy demand with renewable sources. This makes Brazil energy sector one of the least carbon-intensive in the world.[2]

The EU has already set sustainability criteria for biofuels and through its own research[3] concluded that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol meets all the environmental criteria as a carbon-efficient solution for decarbonized transport, and that production increases to meet the predicted demand would not displace or impact other crops in the region.

A tried and tested formula

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is not only helping to achieve the ambitions set out in the European Green Deal and reinforced in both the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies.  Brazilian sugarcane cultivation sets an example of how these targets can be achieved while providing sustainable bio-based alternatives to fuel and plastics that help decarbonizing the economy. The Brazilian experience provides opportunities and learnings that can help Europe reaching its own sustainability ambitions.

[1] Ecological Society of America, Assessing the umbrella value of a range‐wide conservation network for jaguars, 2015

[2] IEA, Country profile Brazil

[3] Assessing the impacts of the EU bioeconomy on third countries: Potential environmental impacts in Brazil of EU biofuel demand to 2030, JRC science for policy report, 2019

Putting Ethanol to good use in fighting COVID-19

Unica Admin — posted 14/04/2020

The devastating impact of Coronavirus looks set to reach Brazil and other countries in the region with numbers of local cases rising. We have seen how across the world, as individuals and healthcare services seek to limit the risk of the infection spreading, essential products such as face masks and hand sanitizers have become scarce as demand has increased. Industries and companies that never manufactured medical supplies before are responding with goodwill and materials, putting their resources to the service of the global pandemic response.

The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) realized that it could make a contribution to fighting the virus by putting sugarcane ethanol to good use. Through its members UNICA is donating one million liters of alcohol 70%, that can be used for disinfection or for alcohol gel production, free of charge. This additional supply will support efforts by public health units to contain the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that hospitals can be kept clean and that medical professionals and other frontline workers can better protect themselves, as well as patients and their families.

The challenge: coordinating the initiative

Making a raw material available for another use in a very short amount of time is a challenging operation, perhaps surprisingly so. While ethanol is very versatile and can be used in many products such as bioplastics, food, beverages and most notably for pharmaceutical and medicinal products, quickly shifting the focus of UNICA members’ production as well as fulfilling very specific legal, logistical and other requirements required a coordinated approach.

Describing the effort, Evandro Gussi, president of UNICA, said, “We live in a moment that demands unity and we have created a real war room operation to overcome the challenges imposed by COVID-19 and contribute to assist several States across Brazil. To date, over 650,000 liters have been donated and distributed by UNICA members to seven states across Brazil, and our efforts continue as the country comes together in the face of this unprecedented crisis. ” 

A number of different stakeholders from public and private organizations came together in order to build an operation that could guarantee safe delivery of the final product to public health units around Brazil. First, they needed to ensure that their actions were compliant with federal and state regulations. To that end, UNICA cooperated closely with the competent authorities, in particular the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) to create a temporary legal frameworkwhich would allowthe production, logistics and distribution of industrial ethanol for hygienic use in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Working together to deliver

Besides producing alcohol 70% for donation, the mills are among the providers of essential products for the population determined by the Government – sugar, ethanol fuel and bioelectricity – and had to keep operations running during the pandemic.  

It was fundamentally important to ensure that the sugarcane mills involved were prepared to manage not only the new production, but also able to protect the safety of their employees. Working with an expert in infectious diseases, all of the mills involved were able to implement new protocols to protect their staff. The infectologist’s recommendations covered both how to avoid contamination at work alongside guidance on how to stay safe at home. New measures have addressed communal dining areas, transportation, personal protective equipment, homeworking and more.

The logistics soon followed. Ethanol alcohol, as a hand sanitizer or in 70% concentration is a sensitive product. Working closely with the competent authorities ensured UNICA members had access to the expertise needed to handle and transport these products safely. Welcome support was provided by members of the Brazilian Association for the Transport and Logistics of Hazardous Products (ABTLP) who offered to play a critical role in providing the appropriate vehicles to transport the cargo, all in partnership with the National Union of Fuel and Lubricant Distribution Companies (Sindicom), who donated the diesel that fueled these heavy-duty trucks to hospitals across Brazil. Coca-Cola FEMSA Brasil also helped with the logistics and IHARA, UNIPAC and Braskem donated various containers to transport the alcohol.

UNICA also needed internal structures to manage such multi-faceted operations. This included liaising closely with both the demand and supply sides, arranging the logistics, monitoring the results and ensuring the safety of everybody involved, strictly following the hygiene and safety measures set out by the Ministry of Health and Anvisa.

Supporting those that need it most

Last but not least, our main concern was that our support reached beyond our pre-established networks. By creating new communications channels with the relevant public authorities, we were able to direct the ethanol to the organizations and locations that were most in need. Thanks to these incredible joint efforts, 650,000 liters of ethanol – the majority produced in Sao Paolo – have been donated and distributed to seven different states across the country so far as well as to local communities and municipalities around the mills themselves.  Sugarcane ethanol is a widely used product, but often best known as an alcohol-based fuel, not as a primary material for hygienic use. Produced by the fermentation of sugarcane juice and molasses it can equally act as both a sweetener in food and beverages (as sugar) or as a substitute for petroleum in the production of bioplastics. Pioneering research is currently being led from Brazil to develop renewable fuels from sugarcane that could entirely replace traditional gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Thanks to the versatility of sugarcane ethanol and hard work of everyone involved, UNICA hopes that initiatives like these can help slow down the spread of the virus and protect the lives of frontline workers. As sugarcane manufacturers, UNICA’s members are proud of the contribution they can make and are honored to have been able to play their part in supporting the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic.