Given its ability to grow large crops and produce ethanol that avoids between 69-89% of CO2e emissions in comparison with regular fossil fuels, Brazil could play a key role in the European Union’s transition to bioeconomy.
In a new study, researchers from the Bio‑Economy Unit of the European Commission, the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Brazil, and the Agrifood Institute of Aragón, in Spain, examine Brazil’s land-use changes and associated greenhouse gas emissions arising from an EU driven ethanol import policy together with projections for other 13 agricultural commodities.
As certain conventional biofuels, such as palm oil, face stricter controls in the EU and there is uncertainty surrounding the commercialization of more sustainable advanced biofuels, Brazilian bioethanol emerges as a short- to medium-term fix to keep EU’s ambitious environmental and climatic targets. On the other hand, the Brazilian government’s decision to open the Amazon biome to sugarcane expansion concerns the EU regarding the sustainability of Brazil’s sugar sector, hindering the ratification of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement.
The study’s results suggest that Brazil’s sugarcane could satisfy EU growing ethanol demand, complying with its environmental criteria, since almost all sugarcane expansion would occur on long-established pasturelands in the country’s South and Midwest. However, the expansion of sugarcane is also driven by competition for viable lands with other relevant commodities, mainly soy and beef.
As a result, deforestation trends in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes linked to soy and beef production could jeopardize Brazil’s contribution to the Paris agreement with an additional 1±0.3 billion CO2eq tons above its First NDC target by 2030.
In this scenario, the study warns that trade talks with a narrow focus on a single commodity could risk unsustainable outcomes. Deals such as the EU-Mercosur call for systemic sustainability benchmarks in order to be ratified.