Brazilians are realists when it comes to politics. We have dozens of political parties here — based not so much on ideology as personal networks, sectional interests and marriages of convenience. No president can command a working majority in the Brazilian Congress, so issues are resolved through wheeling and dealing, case by case. Brazilians view politicians and the political process with cynicism and low expectations — the perfect perspective, as it happens, for thinking about biofuels in the United States.

And we do think about biofuels in the United States, pretty much all the time in our foreign ministry. Brazil has the largest biofuels industry in the world: most of our cars are flex-fuel, and any Brazilian “gas” station has an ethanol pump. Your new president was a proud onetime-owner of a flex-fuel car, but he couldn’t fill it with anything but gas.

Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugarcane rather than corn, but so much the better: it’s more energy efficient and cheaper to produce, especially as our ethanol plants use crushed cane to power themselves, not fossil fuels. If you guys and gals ever open up your ethanol market, we look forward to dominating it about three days later.

So we know all about Iowa. Ah, Iowa. “Field of Dreams,” gay marriage, corn as high as an elephant’s eye feeding players of a sport called football that confusingly isn’t futebol. We thought of Iowa a lot when the White House released details of its new biofuels policy the other day, shoveling hundreds of millions of dollars in the direction of ethanol producers (AKA, Iowa primary voters).

Brazilians don’t mind the political agenda at all: that’s exactly how our politics works, too. We know what state your Secretary of Agriculture comes from. We particularly admired the way he called the subsidy package a “rural development program.” (We’ll file that away for future use ourselves.)

But what we Brazilians do mind is the harping on in the United States about how committed you are to climate change and how your new biofuels policy will increase your energy independence. We’re not as gullible as the U.S. electorate seems to be. The whole point of biofuels is to generate a positive carbon balance by substituting fossil fuels. But, as your own New York Times put it this week: “Scientists differ on the degree to which use of ethanol from corn cuts carbon emissions, if at all.”

So here’s a couple of things on which there is scientific consensus:

  • First, ensuring a net carbon benefit implies monitoring that tells us whether we are actually getting said benefit.
  • Second, you can forget about any carbon benefit if you convert natural habitat to produce biofuels. That second point is, incidentally, the only plausible line U.S. ethanol producers have to defend the tariff barriers they use to protect themselves from our ethanol. As the argument goes: it’s self-defeating to import Brazilian ethanol because the growers burn habitat to grow sugarcane. No doubt we’ll hear your ethanol lobby making this argument again in the coming weeks, at least in between burps as it digests the latest plateful of federal goodies to be plonked in front of it.

Thing is, our ethanol producers would submit to full life-cycle monitoring in a second if it got them into the U.S. market. The costs involved would be peanuts compared to the money to be made. Last year, the area planted to sugar for ethanol in Brazil increased by 659,000 hectares. A grand total of 15,000 hectares — a whopping 2 percent — came from converted natural habitat (and please don’t question the figures: our technology for tracking land-use change rivals yours, given our need to know what’s happening in our Amazon, and Americans come to us to learn how to monitor land-use change in the tropics). With production systems tightened to maximize the net carbon benefit you’d require, abolishing the U.S. import barriers to Brazilian ethanol would be a win for both our countries.

We in Brazil would win not only by winning market share. We’d win because a biofuels sector buckling down to serious monitoring of producers and exporting at scale to meet environmental conditions would be a huge strategic coup for Brazilian conservation. Our conservation movement (and it’s a big one, although you rarely hear about it) would then be able to go to far more damaging agribusiness sectors, especially our beef industry, and point to biofuels as an example of an important Brazilian agroindustry that took an environmental issue seriously, dealt with it, and made pots of money as a result.

You’d win because, as any scientist will tell you, ethanol from cane grown on unconverted land by farmers using low-emission methods in a plant fired by biomass will blow any corn ethanol away for net carbon benefit. It’s not even close. If you in the United States were really committed to reducing emissions from your astoundingly inefficient cars, you’d be importing as much Brazilian ethanol as you possibly could, under the conditions laid out here.

Ah, but if you did that, of course, you’d be dependent on foreign suppliers and that is apparently a Bad Thing. Well, for all our faults, we in Brazil are a democracy and hail from the same neighborhood. Unlike, say, Saudi Arabia. You don’t seem to be very independent from Iowa when it comes to biofuels, after all. It’d be a lot cheaper for you to be dependent on us, not to mention rather better for the world’s climate. But I suppose it is reassuring that in an unstable world there are some things you can rely on — like an Iowa caucus kicking off the primary season.

(Image: Sugarcane field in Brazil. Credit: Dark Inertia through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Dear David: Remember that we met sometimes in Brazil? Nice comparison with ethanol from corn. However, sugar is much more profitable at present world market prices, indicating that energy in the form of food will always be more “noble”, i.e. expensive, than fuel. All the best for your Bildner talk!
    Yours cordially,

  2. Acai berry will shadow the benefits of bio-fuels which should not have space in the dense highly productive forest of the Amazon.. We need more natural medicine and less bio-fuel, thanks for this!

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