Sugarcane Plantation Expansion, primarily for Ethanol Production

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Upon first inspection, ethanol derived from sugarcane and bagasse appears to be the perfect solution for current mid-scale, mid-term energy needs. Requiring little fossil fuel input, sugarcane cultivation and its conversion into ethanol release minimal amounts of carbon dioxide, presenting a great advantage over oil, with respect to climate change. It is renewable, as well, and can be expanded, unlike hydroelectric damming. In Estado do Sao Paulo, Brazil, sugarcane plantations have been expanding exponentially over the past decade. Despite the apparent benefits, sugarcane expansion in this region is creating reservations about social and environmental sustainability, as well as implications for human health.

Critical Statistics:
  1. Estado do Sao Paulo is responsible for 60% of Brazil’s 19 million liter per year sugarcane ethanol production (Uriarte et al. 2009). The Brazilian government has been pushing the expansion of sugarcane because, relative to other biofuel or bioenergy sources, it appears to have the smallest climate and ecological impact (Goldemberg et al. 2008). Much of this expansion has occurred on lands previously used for cattle grazing rather than clear-cutting of primary or secondary forest. Additionally, it can foster economic development, although the social and environmental costs associated with its expansion merit further consideration.

  2. In 1993, 1.9 million hectares were under sugarcane cultivation in Sao Paulo; in 2006, that number increased 226% to 4.3 million hectares, representing 19% of the state’s total area (Goldemberg et al. 2008).Most of this expansion has occurred through pastureland conversion (Martinelli and Filoso 2008).

  3. In 2007, ethanol from sugarcane accounted for 16% of Brazil’s total energy, up 1.5% from 2006, making it Brazil’s second largest energy source (BIOPACT 2008).

  4. A 2009 report argues that sugarcane ethanol reduces atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration by up to 82%, even after considering the indirect land use changes implicit in the use of agricultural land for fuel (UNICA 2009).This comes in reaction to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s report that it reduces greenhouse gases by 44% (Schroeder 2009).

  1. Because Brazil has historically had success with biofuels produced from sugarcane, the demand for sugarcane is growing exponentially (Goldemberg et al 2008; Martinelli and Filoso 2008; Uriarte et al. 2009).

  2. Sugarcane cultivation is limited by soil quality, pluviometric precipitation, and logistical considerations, all of which conditions are met by Estado do Sao Paulo (Goldemberg et al. 2008).

  1. The preparatory burning of sugarcane fields in Sao Paulo for harvesting has led to an increase in incidences of hospital admissions related to respiratory issues, particularly in children and the elderly (Martinelli and Filoso 2008). In 2003, across the state, and particularly clustered around areas of high sugarcane cultivation, respiratory morbidity from fires totaled to 113 elderly and 317 child cases. The long-term effects of continued exposure to atmospheric pollution from sugarcane burning are still uncertain, although Martinelli and Filoso’s (2008) attribute 650 child cases of respiratory morbidity to long-term exposure.

  2. A shift from manual harvesting to mechanized harvesting has reduced carbon emissions and smoke from the burning that is required for harvest by hand (Goldemberg et al 2008).

  3. Sugarcane production can have undesirable social and environmental effects, including soil degradation, increase in atmospheric pollution from pre-harvest burning, pollution of aquatic ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and exploitation of cane cutters (Martinelli and Filoso 2008; Uriarte et al. 2009).

  4. Burning also increases soil temperature, which leads to soil compaction and in turn higher surface water runoff. Goldemberg et al. (2008) counter this, however, stating that in Sao Paulo there is little runoff because of the lack of irrigation needed in an area with high precipitation, that there is minimal loss of biodiversity because it is usually by cropland conversion rather than through deforestation, and that by and large there has been an increase in rural jobs and thus an improvement in quality of life.

  5. While some argue that cane cutters in Sao Paulo experience better working conditions than workers in other crop-type plantations (Goldemberg et al 2008), it is well documented that laborers are often exploited in a way that puts their physical health at risk (Martinelli and Filoso 2008).In addition to the danger of exposure to aerosols from burning, workers also experience physical exhaustion from poor working conditions. Between April 2004 and June 2007, at least 18 workers died from injuries or conditions directly related to sugarcane plantation work (Martinelli and Filoso 2008).

What is Next:
  1. Under the close eye of environmental licensing authorities plans have been developed to increase sugarcane land in Sao Paulo by 50% by 2010 (Goldemberg et al. 2008).

  2. Brazil currently gets approximately ~46% of their total energy from renewable sources but with hydroelectric dams being shown to contribute to local climatological issues

  3. The government of Estado do Sao Paulo has mandated that by 2014 all sugarcane must be harvested mechanically in order to avoid the air pollution created by pre-manual harvest biomass burning (King 2009).

  1. Goldemberg, J., S. T. Coelho, and P. Guardabasi. 2008. The sustainability of ethanol production from sugarcane. Energy Policy 36: 2086-97.

  2. King, C. 20 October 2009. Brazil Trying to mix Social with Environmental Sustainability. Environmental Research Web. (last accessed 20 October 2009)

  3. Martinelli, L. A., and S. Filoso. 2008. Expansion of sugarcane ethanol production in Brazil: Environmental and Social Challenges. Ecological Applications 18(4): 885-98.

  4. Schroeder, J. 1 October 2009. UNICA to EPA: Sugarcane Ethanol reduces GHGs. (last accessed 20 October 2009)

  5. UNICA (Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association). 30 September 2009. Scientific data supports GHG reduction of sugarcane ethanol, even considering ILUC (indirect land use change).{D946C65B-2AB3-4B6A-902A-52E4899EE0A3} (last accessed 20 October 2009)

  6. Uriarte, M., C. B. Yackulic, T. Cooper, D. Flynn, M. Cortes, T. Crk, G. Cullman, M. McGinty, J. Sircely. 2009. Expansion of sugarcane production in Sao Paulo, Brazil: Implications for fire occurrence and respiratory health. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 132: 48-56.