In this article the environmental and socio-economical impacts of the production of ethanol from sugarcane in the state of São Paulo (Brazil) are evaluated. Subsequently, an attempt is made to determine to what extent these impacts are a bottleneck for a sustainable and certified ethanol production. Seventeen environmental and socio-economic areas of concern are analysed. Four parameters are used to evaluate if an area of concern is a bottleneck: (1) the importance of the area of concern, based on the severity of the impact and the frequency of which an aspect is mentioned in the literature as an area of concern, (2) the availability of indicators and criteria, (3) the necessity of improvement strategies to reach compliance with Brazilian and/or (inter) national legislation, standards, guidelines and sustainability criteria, and (4) the impact of these improvement strategies on the costs and potential of ethanol production. Fourteen areas of concern are classified as a minor or medium bottleneck. For 7 areas of concern the additional costs to avoid or reduce undesirable effects have been calculated at ⩽+10% for each area of concern. Due to higher yields and overlapping costs the total additional production costs of compliance with various environmental and socio-economic criteria are about +36%. This study also shows that the energy input to output ratio can be increased and the greenhouse gas emissions reduced by increasing the ethanol production per tonne cane and by increasing the use of sugarcane waste for electricity production. A major bottleneck for a sustainable and certified production is the increase in cane production and the possible impacts on biodiversity and the competition with food production. Genetically modified cane is presently being developed, but is at this moment not (yet) applied. Both a ban on and the allowance of the use of genetically modified cane could become a major bottleneck considering the potentially large benefits and disadvantages, that are both highly uncertain at this moment. The approach demonstrated in this report provides a useful framework for the development of a practically applicable certification system, but further monitoring and research is required to reduce gaps in knowledge in combination with stakeholder consultation (particularly with respect to the three bottlenecks identified in this article).

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Edward Smeets
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