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  • Biofuel: a new opportunity for science collaboration?

The interest in Brazil's ethanol programme should be used to set up fairer partnerships between developing and developed countries.

Brazil began exploring ethanol production from sugarcane after the first oil crisis of 1973-74, as a way to reduce the country's reliance on oil imports. It now produces 15 of the 25 billion litres of ethanol used worldwide for energy production.

Brazil has also developed a long-term research programme for sugarcane ethanol. This has led to a domestic market for ethanol-powered cars and local innovations such as 'flex-fuel' cars that can run on either petrol or ethanol, or a mixture of both, allowing drivers to choose a fuel depending on its price.

The long-standing focus on sugarcane ethanol production has also given the country a competitive edge on the technology. In Brazil, ethanol production is twice as cheap as in the United States — which primarily uses corn — and three times as cheap as European production from sugarbeet.

All eyes on biofuel

The increasing attention paid to the impacts of climate change have focused the world's attention on the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with biofuels. Across the globe, researchers have begun testing a variety of bioproducts, such as soya, palm oil and algae for their potential as raw materials to produce biofuels.

José Goldemberg, São Paulo's secretary for the environment in Brazil, claims the Brazilian biofuel programme has helped mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting that it could be replicated for a sustainable energy future elsewhere (see Biofuels: countries advised to follow Brazilian lead).

Not surprisingly then, Brazil's ethanol programme has come under the international spotlight.

In particular, US president George Bush has expressed an interest in learning from the Brazilian model, making it a key point of discussion in his recent visit to Latin America (see Brazil and US to partner on ethanol [in Spanish]).

But despite the promise of collaboration between the two countries, nothing concrete emerged from the meeting in Brazil or the most recent meeting on 31 March — disappointing Brazilian manufacturers, producers and government representatives who were expecting a reduction in the duty on Brazilian ethanol imported to the United States.

Nor was there any solid progress towards creating a joint research programme between developed and developing world scientists.

Room for collaboration

But there is still hope that ongoing negotiations will lead to a collaborative science agenda between the two countries.

The United States are investing about US$1.6 billion on research into ethanol production over the next five years — a sum that almost matches Brazil's entire annual science and technology budget of US$2 billion.

The interest in Brazilian ethanol research may present an opportunity to shift the balance of North-South partnerships so that developing-country contributions are internationally recognised as high-level science and could result in more equal collaborations, where all parties benefit.

International alliances

As pointed out by Brazilian president Lula da Silva, the United States' increased interest in ethanol could also lead to a strategic alliance for persuading the world to change the balance in energy sources.

Brazil is already working with other developing countries to transfer its ethanol production technology. Last month (March), it signed an agreement with Indonesia to provide technical support to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

Closer to home, Mexico has announced that it will use monetary incentives to encourage Brazilian producers to commercialise ethanol use in Mexico.

Indeed, a key aspect to the US-Brazil negotiations is a commitment to disseminating ethanol technology to Central America and the Caribbean, although it is unclear why the United States needs to make such a commitment or how such an agreement would benefit Brazil.

The United States could be accused of just playing a political game — cementing its relationship with Brazil simply to tempt the country away from potential Latin American alliances on biofuel, such as the recent deal made by Cuba and Venezuela to increase the use of alternative energy sources (see Cuba and Venezuela strengthen their alliance).

Ethanol the commodity

Brazil needs to make sure that any future agreements on disseminating ethanol technology will benefit the country — both economically and scientifically. Collaborative programmes could enable Brazilian scientists to maintain their competitive lead in ethanol production technology.

Ethanol looks set to become a high level commodity in the coming century. And Brazil has the most advanced technology in the world for producing and using it as biofuel. The country should take advantage of its unique position in the upcoming round of negotiations with the United States to set a new agenda for science collaboration with an equal share of give and take between the two parties.

Luisa Massarani
Latin America and the Caribbean Coordinator, SciDev.Net