Positive review of Sustainable Development of Biofuels in Latin America and the Caribbean

February 16, 2015 |

Solomon Barry D., and Robert Baillis eds. Sustainable Development of Biofuels in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Springer Press, 2014

By Thomas N. Thompson., Maritime Environmental and Energy Advisor, U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), Washington ([email protected]).

Amongst all the renewable resources, biomass is one of the most promising, particularly for transportation fuels. This superb collection of essays shows that Latin America is emerging as a major global producer of biofuels as countries across the region seek to leverage competitive advantages like vast stretches of fertile land and tropical weather. According to the book, biofuels produced in Latin America and the Caribbean now account for roughly thirty percent of global biofuel production (and more than fifty percent if the U.S. is excluded), with regional output doubling from 2001 to 2012.

While the chapters are focused around specific countries with Brazil and Argentina showcased in detail, each of the contributors does a commendable job of providing an analytical, historical narrative for the efforts, successes, setbacks, failures, and future efforts of biofuel policies to meet a range of energy, environment, and social objectives. Those objectives have varied from country to country.Brazil, a major exporter of ethanol, became the first biofuel power three decades ago out of concerns about energy security. Because of the dominance of Brazil’s ethanol history, the book provides an extensive history of the subsidized program known as Proaloccol, its key features, and recent developments. Despite the efficiency and low cost of sugar cane ethanol, several sustainability challenges are discussed. They include agro-ecological zoning, the gradual phase-out of crop harvest burning, a ban on slave labor, and stricter regulation of working conditions.A separate chapter addresses biodiesel in Brazil, which is primarily based on soy oil. Brazil’s National Program of Production and Use of Biodiesel (PNPB) is much more recent than its ethanol industry. Soy production has been implicated in the destruction of Amazon and Cerrado biomes. In addition, soy is a highly mechanized crop that is typically planted in large monoculture plantations and requires minimal inputs of labor. According to one study, while soybeans cover 35% of Brazil’s annual cropland, the sector accounts for only 8% of employment in annual crop cultivation.

Argentina has become a world leader in biodiesel production. The primary motivation has been trade potential with other nations. Argentina’s biodiesel production is focused on exports. Only minimal ethanol is produced. But production and trade in biodiesel have been volatile. Argentina has faced a stiff anti-dumping challenge from the EU in its biodiesel exports, which has questioned its subsidies.Other countries in Latin America have wanted to develop domestic sectors to meet their own energy needs as well as socio-political needs. Colombia, an “up-and-coming” biofuel producer, has turned to palm oil-based biodiesel in part to provide rural farmers in coca-growing regions with an alternative crop. In the book’s other individual chapters, biofuel policies in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and the Caribbean are also analyzed.A major conclusion of these essays is that the region’s biofuels are derived almost exclusively from sugar cane, soy bean oil, and palm oil, all of which are embedded in pre-existing agro-industrial complexes, which for years have contributed to social inequality and environmental degradation. Thus it is unclear whether emergent biofuel markets will be able to alter embedded land tenure practices that have been in operation for many, many years.

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Category: Research

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