By Eduardo Leão de Sous, Executive Director, UNICA

Geopolitical developments in recent years and months have left most nations staring at an energy crisis. The energy security of countries has traditionally hinged on the oil and gas sector and will continue to do so till alternate energy solutions become mainstream. Meanwhile, the use of fossil fuels continues to deplete natural resources and cause wide-scale environmental pollution.

Biofuels such as ethanol can simultaneously address these two problems, especially in countries with a natural vocation for sugarcane cultivation, such as Brazil and India, the two major producers of sugar. In this perspective, sugarcane bioethanol represents not only an alternative to petrol, but also a viable and efficient solution for one of the greatest global demands – the mitigation of the climate crisis. The use of pure bioethanol (E100) in flex fuel vehicles, as well as its blending into petrol, when adopted through clear and long-term public policies, can provide an immediate reduction in emissions in the automotive sector, contributing to the reduction of local pollution in large urban centers as well.

Brazilian experience

Brazil is an illustrative example of how the correct energy policies can help a nation address the daunting energy challenges of our times. Brazil embarked on a program to use ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels back in the 1970s, way before climate change became a major concern. Since 1975, ethanol production in Brazil has grown more than 50 times while prices have dropped up to 60 per cent in real terms. The country’s ethanol economy received a boost with the introduction of “flex engine” technology in 2003, which allowed any vehicle to be powered purely by ethanol or petrol or any intermediary mix of the two.

Today, Brazil is a global leader in biofuels, and flex-fuel cars provide a large domestic market. More than 90 per cent of cars in Brazil (around 31 million) have flex-fuel engines, and the ethanol sector currently accounts for almost 45 per cent of the energy consumed by light vehicles in Brazil. This, together with the mandatory blending of 27 per cent ethanol in petrol, has reduced Brazil’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 600 million tons of CO2 over the past 20 years, as this biofuel emits up to 90 per cent less CO2 than fossil fuel.

In addition to its contribution to avoiding global warming, ethanol has also provided a successful experience in the control of pollutant emissions. Its contribution, for example, is well known, so that the city of São Paulo, the fourth most populous in the world, is today one of the metropolises with the lowest level of air pollution. In 2021, the city ranked 1,779th, according to the IQAir list, a platform that monitors and ranks the air quality of municipalities around the globe.

With similar weather conditions and topography, India is certainly among those who can take a leaf out of Brazil’s book.

The India-Brazil partnership can be a beacon for other developing countries

India has committed to generating 50 per cent of its total power from non-fossil fuel sources and reducing carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030. Several ministries have acknowledged that blending ethanol in conventional fuel is crucial for strengthening energy security by reducing fossil fuel imports, and the ethanol program is among the Indian government’s priorities, according to country officials. India has even advanced its target of 20 per cent ethanol blending in petrol (E20) by five years to 2025. It is currently the second largest sugar producer in the world, after Brazil, and has the opportunity to convert its surplus sugar stocks into ethanol. India has great potential to move forward on an ambitious ethanol program, and the two countries can engage in a fruitful and sound partnership.

Brazil and India have recently partnered for developing a sustainable, clean energy pathway, within the private sector, for decarbonising the mobility and the power generation sectors. In April 2022, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which, among other goals, aims to create a Virtual Center of Excellence (CoE) in bioenergy. The idea is to share knowledge about the use of ethanol and flex-fuel technologies. The CoE will be a knowledge portal – a hub that provides the latest and state-of-the art information on technological advancements, technical standards, regulations, market access, and public policies pertaining to biomass and bioenergy.

Together, India and Brazil can work with other countries who are looking to explore ethanol blending to reduce the carbon footprint of their respective transportation sectors. As two of the world’s biggest developing economies and largest producers of sugarcane, India and Brazil are well-positioned to support the rise of ethanol as a global commodity and pave the way for a thriving international market for ethanol. Given India’s size and geopolitical importance, an ambitious ethanol program on its part will not only help in creating a robust, commoditised market, but also send an important signal to other Asian and sugarcane-producing nations about the feasibility and benefits of such a program.