When you fill up your car with a gasoline and ethanol blend most likely you are burning ethyl alcohol produced from U.S. corn. A few years from now, however, your commute may be powered by ethanol made from sugar cane cultivated in the Brazilian cerrado. An economic powerhouse dynamically bursting forth on to the world stage, Brazil is the Earth's largest producer of sugar cane ethanol. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has jumped on the ethanol bandwagon, repeatedly remarking that his country's fortunes depend on a future in which "we plant and harvest fuel." In São Paulo, a sprawling city of 18 million, motorists can fill up their tanks with either gasoline or ethanol, known in Brazil as alcool. Most opt for ethanol, not surprising given that this biofuel costs half the price of gasoline.
Though Brazil's exploration of ethanol production goes back to the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s that the industry started to gain any traction. Buffeted by the oil price shock of 1973, the country's military dictators grew concerned about Brazil's reliance on foreign imports of fossil fuels. Their solution: Pour government subsidies into the sugar industry and mandate ethanol distribution at the pumps. Today one can buy so-called "flex-fuel" cars (known as carros flex in Portuguese) that run on gasoline, ethanol, or any combination of both. Because ethanol is cheap, the public has bought up the cars, and currently a full 90 percent of new vehicles sold can run on alcool.
There's no escaping it: Brazil has become deeply committed to ethanol, and economists expect that "alcohol fever" could attract some $100 billion in investment. The industry hopes that this will lead to the construction of one hundred new distilleries by 2012, by which time domestic ethanol production will have doubled.
On the surface of it, Brazil's ethanol boom has proven to be both economically and environmentally desirable. The sugar cane-based fuel is 30 percent less expensive to produce than the corn-based variety coming from Iowa. Sugar ethanol is also efficient: One acre of sugar cane can yield more than twice as much ethanol as an acre of corn. Compared to corn, sugar cane also looks pretty environmentally friendly: Brazilian farmers use less fossil fuel to convert sugar cane to alcohol than Iowa's farmers do to produce corn ethanol. Even better, plant waste from sugar cane can be used to produce heat and electricity right in the distillery itself.
As a result of its turn toward ethanol, Brazil avoided emitting 600 million tons of carbon between 1974 and 2004. So what's with environmentalists who complain about ethanol -- won't they ever be satisfied?