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Climate Change & Bonsucro Addressing climate change through sustainable sugarcane production

By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9 billion, urbanisation will continue to rise at an accelerated pace, and income levels will be many multiples of what they are now. In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, farmers must produce more food per unit of land, water, and agrochemicals. To do so, however, they simply cannot continue producing in the same way. They will have to do this while facing climate change, volatility, shifting nutrition needs, and the increasing scarcity of most of the physical factors of production. Climate change itself is one of the biggest threats to agriculture due to the consequences of rising temperatures combined with an increase of extreme events that have an impact on soil, water and other central components of agricultural production. In the same way that climate change affects farming, farmers can affect climate change, by helping to combat it.

According to the EPA, in 2010, agriculture and land use change accounted for 24% of total global carbon equivalent emissions. Farming has enormous impacts on the world’s most critical resources and accordingly, farmers will have to produce while also ensuring the provision of various vital ecosystem services. If they do not, we will not only degrade those resources but also exhaust the ability to produce enough food. Rather than simply “more” production, we must also consider what would be “better” production and better food systems.

Bonsucro strives to inform and promote learning and investments to support the sugarcane sector not only to minimise its contribution to climate change but also to being a central piece in solving it, through the central role sugarcane is able to play in the decarbonisation of the energy sector by producing renewable energy such as biofuels and electricity.

Sugarcane has a great potential to support countries in reaching their climate change targets and to be a major solution to decarbonise the energy and transport sector. Sugarcane substitutes the use of fossil fuels in transportation and for energy generation. Brazil has been promoting the domestic use of ethanol since the petrol crisis of the 1970’s and ethanol is now a major car fuel. The EPA (United States) recognises sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel (i.e. with high carbon savings) and the EU Commission estimates the potential carbon savings from sugarcane ethanol to be up to 70% (i.e. sugarcane ethanol could emit 70% less carbon than fossil fuels). Additionally, sugarcane mills have upgraded their installation to allow the production of electricity that is exported to national grids. Depending on country energy mix, this exportation replaces electricity produced from coal or other fossil fuels.

In 2015/16, Bonsucro certified members have exported 4000 GWh of electricity to their local grids. This is equivalent to 403,000 T CO2 eq in avoided emissions. Bonsucro certified members also produce a total of 2.5 million cubic metres of ethanol. Their average emission factor was 20.03 gCO2/MJ in 2015. This has resulted in an average GHG saving factor of 76% compared to gasoline (excluding transportation and use at destination), representing a total saving of 3,400,000 T of CO2eq.

Ethanol has a reduced impact on climate than fossil fuels and Bonsucro works with stakeholders to promote the use of ethanol as a source of decarbonised energy. Yet Bonsucro believes that the sugarcane sector as a whole can not only offer ethanol as a solution but also need to continuously thrive in reducing the carbon emissions of its agricultural and manufacturing processes in order to actively contribute to the fight against climate change. In order to do so, the Bonsucro Production Standard sets a limit for emissions for the production of sugar and ethanol from sugarcane, respectively <0.4 t CO2eq/t sugar and <24 gCO2eq/MJ.

The graph below shows the average emissions of the production of sugar for certified mills since the first certification in 2011.

In 2015/16 there was a continuous reduction of the emissions from sugar production, with a drop of 16% compared to 2014/15 levels. Compared to the target set in the Bonsucro Production Standard, Bonsucro certified sugar emits 47.5% less CO2.

It is difficult to assess what may have contributed to this reduction. From one side, use of diesel for cane transportation, agricultural activities, and the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals are likely areas where operators may have improved, on the other hand an increase in the export of energy that provide GHG emission credits due to the displacement factor could also be a reason.

Whilst further studies would be required to determine the causality related to these reductions, the emissions can also be evaluated using the lenses of land use change emissions.

We observe that the emissions from operators that have cultivated land that has been converted into sugarcane are decreasing over the last season when the level of GHG emissions for sugarcane produced without land use change has also decreased. There is still a gap in the emission levels but reducing (from 0.33 TCO2 sugar to 0.29 T CO2/T sugar). The general drop in emissions is primarily caused by the drop of emissions of mills not having converted land to sugarcane after 1 January 2008 (cut-off date set by the Bonsucro Production Standard). We could reflect on the impact of land use change on emissions factors and determine that it is a likely factor to influence environmental credential of production. Should the market increase its demand for low emissions products, there is a possibility that operators would be required to exclude the most emitting land from the mix of production. It might impact their expansion strategy and help reducing the impact of land expansions on emissions.

Whilst sugar emissions are reducing, we observe that the opposite is happening with emissions from the production of cane. Over the last three seasons, the emissions have increased constantly to reach 25.05 kg CO2/Tc (without LUC) and 44.33 kg CO2/Tc (with LUC). The negative impact of these increases has been mitigated by the improvement of the performance at mill level and sugar production (general reduction of the emission factor).

For ethanol production, the trend was different with a slight increase in the emission factor of ethanol produced without land use change (from 17.09 to 18.85 g CO2/MJ) and a reduction to the emission factor for ethanol produced with land use change (from 24.52 to 21.03 g CO2/MJ showing a 14% reduction). The average level of emissions was 20.3 g CO2/MJ, 15% below the target and in slight decrease from the previous season at minus 2.9%.

For both ethanol and sugar, the vast majority of the mills are performing better than the levels required by the Bonsucro Production Standard, on average 68% of the mills comply with the requirements considering the two indicators together (not considering land use change).

The study evaluates the evolution of the emissions of:

  • 2012 mills – these are the group of mills that are continuously certified since 2012
  • 2014 mills – these are the group of all 49 certified mills that were already certified at the end of the 2014/15
  • 2015 new mills – these are the group of mills that become certified for the first time during the season 2015/16

2012 mills and 2014 mills are both showing improvement of their emission factors for the three products. However, whilst the 2014 mills had a higher emission in 2014/15 than the 2012 mills across the range of products, they have further reduced their emissions for the production of sugarcane and sugar, but not for the production of ethanol. We observe that newly certified mills have better sugar and ethanol emission factors but a worst emission factor for sugarcane. During the season 2015/16 most of the new certification happened in new territories. By facts we know that Bonsucro is often adopted by the best performing mills of new territories. These operators are therefore likely to already have attained high level of environmental performance at mill level, but not necessarily at farm level. Whilst Bonsucro seems to have some impact on the reduction of GHG emissions at mill level (all mills decreased their GHG emissions), we observe that the impact might be greater at farm level. Following the performance of newly certified mills across the years would allow Bonsucro to confirm this observation.

The overall picture of GHG emissions in certified mills is positive as shown in the table above.

Considering that over the period 2011/12 and 2015/16 235.5 million tonnes of sugarcane have been produced, the performance of certified operators has allowed the avoidance of 2,896,000 T of CO2 eq. since these mills were certified. This is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 220,000 Ha of forest over 5 years .

285,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions were avoided in 2015 alone through the sustainable production of sugarcane.

Considerations on Land Use Change

As we’ve seen, Land Use Change drastically affects the emission factors of productions. In 2015, 50% of certified mills have harvested cane grown on land that had been converted to sugarcane after 1st January 2008. Although calculations for land use change emissions specific to sugarcane do not exist, the Bonsucro Calculator relies on an interpretation of the PAS2050 standard. The methodologies used are imperfect as very generic. The default emission factors only consider two cases: conversion from pasture and conversion from forest. In case of conversion from perennial to sugarcane, operators are requested to choose the conversion factor of a forest conversion. This overestimates the final emissions from land use change. Whilst there are clear opportunities for sugarcane in relation to climate change, the inaccuracy of the LCA methodology provided in the calculator renders any mitigation (reducing emissions) and an adaptation (as a resilient and reliable source of renewable energy and biomaterials) opportunities harder to identify and therefore implement. A review of the LCA is currently underway in collaboration with the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Outcome Report 2017

This text is taken from the Bonsucro Outcome Report 2017.

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