Brazilian Sugarcane Farming Could Expand Up to 5 Million Hectares by 2030 Due to Ethanol Demand

There was a recent study led by researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, has revealed the future demand for ethanol could expand sugarcane farming up to 5 million hectares (19,305 square miles) by 2030 to meet a rising demand for ethanol, and ethanol demand would increase by between 17.5 and 34.4 million metric tonnes.

According to Milton Aurelio Uba de Andrade Junior, a researcher at the university’s school of earth and environmental sciences, future biofuel demand will directly impact land use in Brazil, which produces ethanol from sugarcane.

“Our study has modelled scenarios forecasting future ethanol demand based on different trajectories for gross domestic product, population growth, fuel prices, blending policies, fleet composition, and efficiency gains.”

“A high demand scenario fuelled by strong economic and population growth, soaring gasoline prices, and ambitious blending targets, could mean that current demand for ethanol in Brazil will be doubled by 2030. If this scenario occurs, then Brazil will need an additional five million hectares of land for sugarcane crops to meet this high demand.”, he said.

Researchers considered three policy scenarios. Firstly, a high-demand scenario in which renewable fuels are favored and the mandated fuel blend increases to 35 percent ethanol. Second, a low-demand scenario where fossil fuels are preferred and the mandate decreases to 20 percent ethanol. Lastly, a business-as-usual scenario where the blend remains steady at 27 percent.

The result shown that government fuel policies will have only a minor effect on future native vegetation loss, because all three study scenarios predicted that expansions would take place almost exclusively within pastures and not require new deforestation. Although, Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, issued a decree revoking zoning regulations for the sugarcane industry, opening up the Amazon and other areas of primary forest to expanded cane cultivation.

Aline Soterroni, the modeling study’s co-author, described it is possible to meet a high demand for sugarcane ethanol in the coming years by expanding the sugarcane area over low productive pastures. And, there is another area left around 60 million hectares (231,661 square miles) in Brazil outside the Amazon and Pantanal open to sugarcane cultivation — an area six times the extent of current sugarcane plantations in the country, and more than enough to meet even the highest demand scenario while avoiding primary forest.

The researchers also predicted ethanol demand would increase by 17.5 million tonnes (of oil equivalent) in the fossil fuel scenario, and 34.4 million metric tonnes in the renewables scenario, representing an increase of 11 percent and 119 percent, respectively, over current levels of production.

Policies favoring fossil fuels would lead to demand for 1.2 million hectares (4,633 square miles) of new sugarcane plantations by 2030, whereas renewables-focused policies would spur that expansion to 5 million hectares (19,305 square miles) — an area of new production roughly the size of Costa Rica.

Akenya Alkimim, geoscientist from Universidade Federal de Vicosa, Brazil, explained “every hectare deforested in the Amazon, sugarcane plantations would release 608 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a total “carbon debt” that would take 62 years of biofuel production to payback. However, Brazil needs not through new deforestation, but by converting existing pasture to cropland that would release less than a tenth of the CO2 and take only six years to repay the carbon debt. ”

This study, which was published in the journal Energy Policy, was a collaboration between the University of Queensland, the International Institute for Applied System Analysis in Austria, as well as the National Institute for Spatial Research in Brazil.