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Sugarcane at the crossroad of agriculture, energy, transport and innovation

This week UNICA’s President Elizabeth Farina was supposed to attend the Apex-Brazil conference on the EU-Brazil partnership, in the presence of Brazilian Ambassador to the EU Vera Machado.

Of course, the event was cancelled as a consequence of the tragic events in Brussels on Tuesday 22 March. Elizabeth would have shared important messages on sugarcane which represent such a strategic sector for Brazil, as it delivers many products and opportunities, mainly from sugar and ethanol.

On sugar, some of you may already know that a little over ten years ago when the EU and Brazil were negotiating the Mercosur agreement, sugar was excluded from it because the EU sugar market was deemed to be too fragile for competition. Since then, it has gone through a series of reforms – the last of which will take place next year – that will effectively make it mature for competition from abroad. A number of countries have already been granted duty-free sugar export quotas to Europe. It’s time Brazil is given the same treatment through the EU-Mercosur agreement.

On ethanol, we have extensively debated about its sustainability. Let’s talk now about the role it could play if only it was traded freely in Europe. Unfortunately, what currently happens is that ethanol is considered an agricultural product, contrary to what happens for biodiesel which is considered a chemical product, and this means a higher tariff at 19 euro/hectoliter in the EU. This custom classification is effectively preventing Brazil to export to Europe. By removing this tariff barrier, more Brazilian sugarcane ethanol could be traded with Europe. This does not mean that it would replace European production, but only complement it.

In addition, those who think this would only benefit Brazil are missing the point. It’s about much more than just exports really. Firstly, this would benefit European companies as well. Approximately 20% of the sugarcane processing in Brazil is actually done by European groups. For those operating in Europe in the bio-chemical and bio-plastic industry, it would mean access to an affordable and low-carbon feedstock in the shape of sugarcane ethanol.

With minimum 71% GHG emission reduction according to default values in the Renewable Energy Directive, and 55% if ILUC is factored in, its GHG performance is simply unmatched among first generation biofuels. Higher blends in conventional fuels would be a simple step. Add to this the diversification of supply sources, the competition to lower costs, the alleviation of pressure on cereals commodity markets… If this is not a low-hanging fruit to help the EU decarbonize its transport sector, I don’t know what it is!

If the EU wants to decarbonize its transport system, it must address the paradox of trading oil freely while imposing high import taxes on Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. The Mercosur agreement is a good opportunity to do this; let’s not waste it.

Géraldine Kutas