Brazilian sugarcane fields

When the Environmental Protection Agency released the final volumes for the 2013 Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), it ignited the contentious debate over how America can reduce transportation emissions on the road to a clean, renewable fuel future. 

During debate over the future of the RFS and its ambitious goals of energy security and reduced emissions, one factor may have been overlooked – the modest but important role Brazilian sugarcane ethanol exports play in meeting EPA’s targets.  

Under the RFS, sugarcane ethanol has become an important ingredient for America’s renewable fuel goals, especially considering Congress capped contributions from conventional corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons (less than half of the full RFS) and the development of commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel facilities has been slower than expected. 

Expanding RFS Goals, Growing Brazilian Supplies 

Sugarcane ethanol is the only biofuel currently produced at commercial scale available to meet advanced non-cellulosic renewable fuel targets. Brazilian exports comprised just 3% of all renewable fuel consumed by Americans, but 23% of the U.S. advanced biofuels supply in 2012. 

Looking ahead, Brazilian producers are projected to provide at least 600 million gallons of fuel required to meet targets in 2013, and could supply up to one billion additional gallons in 2014. 

These imports from Brazil may seem like a drop in the bucket, but they’re having a big climate impact by reducing emissions. Sugarcane ethanol is one of the only renewable fuels recognized by EPA as an advanced biofuel, cutting emissions 61% compared to gasoline. 

In fact, the sugarcane ethanol used by American drivers in 2012 cut carbon dioxide emissions 2.2 million tons, equal to the offsets that would be created by letting nearly 57 million trees grow for 10 years. 

Sugarcane ethanol as a percentage of US fuel mix

On The Road To A Renewable Transportation Future 

But just as sugarcane ethanol has improved the environment in America, it’s boosted Brazil’s energy independence. Sugarcane is Brazil’s top source of renewable energy, supplying 18% of all national energy consumption. 

Flex fuel vehicles that can run on either gasoline or ethanol account for 90% of new car sales in Brazil, replacing more than half the country’s gasoline needs with sugarcane ethanol, and since 2003 sugarcane ethanol has avoided 128 million tons of CO2 emissions. 

Taking an even wider view, biofuels are thriving on the international market, led by Brazilian and American producers. Roughly half of Brazil’s total ethanol exports go toward U.S. markets and nearly all of the 1.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol imported by the U.S. since 2007 has been from Brazilian sugarcane. 

So add it all up, and the importance of sugarcane ethanol to U.S. environmental goals is as evident as the cleaner emissions coming from American tailpipes. Brazilian sugarcane producers have made long-term commitments to increase output, and are proud of the role we play in reducing greenhouse gases from transportation by keeping clean, reliable, and renewable fuels flowing to U.S. vehicles. 

Kicking Off An Honest Conversation 

These vital facts about the contributions of Brazilian sugarcane biofuels can get lost in the debate of renewable fuels in Washington, D.C., but we think they’re important as our two countries work together to make transportation more sustainable. 

This overview post is just our first contribution to The Energy Collective, and we plan on continuing to contribute key facts and perspective on topics like renewable identification numbers (RINs), how Brazilian producers are progressing toward U.S. export goals, and the future of the RFS. We hope you’ll let us know what you think, and look forward to a robust debate on the future of renewable fuels.