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Public policies

Increasing demand for energy

Using idle land could expand biofuel and food production

LAURA DAVIÑAThe Brazilian and foreign experts that met in May in São Paulo concluded that production of biofuels, in particular of ethanol, could increase without competing for land for the production of food and with less environmental impact, if more scientific and technological research is conducted and if there is more interaction with public policies for social and economic development.

“Those who design public policies become confused in the face of all the uncertainties about the viability of a sustainable future”, commented Lee Lyndt, a researcher from Dartmouth College in the United States, in one of the presentations at the Scientific Issues on Ethanol workshop, held on May 24 and 26 at FAPESP headquarters. He and other speakers highlighted the adverse environmental impact of the world’s current energy production model, which is based on non-renewable fuels, mainly oil, coal and natural gas.

“Our comfort depends on fossil fuels”, stated José Goldemberg, from the University of São Paulo. However, according to him, this energy model not only risks exhaustion, as oil reserves become depleted, but is also socially unfair, as Europe’s inhabitants consume an amount of oil equal to six tons a year, whereas Africans consume 10 times less. “The use of modern renewable sources, which is the environmentalists’ dream, is growing, but there is still a long way to go  before they become more widespread. The future definitely belongs to renewable energy, but only in 20 or 30 years time”.

Goldemberg was one of the authors of the report Lighting the way: toward a sustainable energy future, requested two years ago by the InterAcademy Council from 15 academies of science. Recently published by FAPESP (under the title Um futuro com energia sustentável: iluminando o caminho, 300 pages), this document stresses the role of governments in supporting long-term investments in energy infrastructure and research to help disseminate renewable energy sources, including biofuels.

“The expansion of biofuel production in Brazil and in the United States has raised serious controversy on the incompatibility of food and fuel”, recalled Goldemberg. Over the course of two days of debates, promoted by FAPESP, by the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC) and by the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), this conflict was cleared and land limitations stopped being seen as an obstacle to the expansion of ethanol production. Hypothetically, doubling Brazil’s livestock productivity from one to two steers per hectare could add 100 million hectares to the current 4 million hectares of sugarcane, thereby supplying two thirds of the global demand for ethanol.

Changes in sight
Furthermore, 1 billion acres could be converted to agriculture worldwide. “Brazil only uses one percent of the area that could be used for agriculture”, states Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. Several speakers commented that the improved use of land could expand ethanol production while also meeting the rising demand for food and reducing world poverty.

Patricia Osseweijer, a researcher from the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, told those at the meeting that the current portfolio of energy sources in Europe is neither environmentally safe nor sustainable. However, there are serious limitations to implanting alternative sources. According to her, even if European countries used 40 million hectares to produce biofuels, only one third of the demand would be met.

“Finding lasting, biodegradable, environment-friendly and economically viable solutions is very hard”, she acknowledged. “Politicians fear the impact of the measures that are to be taken”. Patricia said that what she has seen in Europe suggests that producing more knowledge does not necessarily imply more government or public opinion support.

“We must expand public involvement and improve the quality of communication. The debates still lack clarity and only reflect one side”. Horward Alper, from the University of Ottawa, Canada, reiterated: “Clear and concise communication is absolutely crucial. You must be understood by your 16-year old daughter”.

Substantial changes in other habits seem to be indispensible in the pursuit of a less polluted planet. As the transport sector currently consumes one third of the energy produced in the world, Cylon Gonçalves, professor emeritus at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and FAPESP’s deputy coordinator, commented: “Only a radical transformation of the means of transport and of mankind’s needs will lead us to sustainability. There are scientific and technical limits to an ongoing growth in demand”.

Some changes could take place immediately. “If developing countries such as China and India continued using coal, but with American or Japanese technology, they would gain energy efficiency and the emissions of greenhouse gases would drop by one third”, suggested Goldemberg.