You’re on mute!

“You’re on mute!” No doubt this has been one of the most repeated sentences, spoken and heard, over the past year. During countless seminars and virtual meetings, the familiar alert “you’re on mute” is often spoken in unison when someone unsuccessfully attempts to express their ideas and thoughts.

There is a similar feeling in a world that requires ever broader and more complex debates, such as that of our greatest challenge of tackling climate change. When it comes to decarbonizing our economies, in which transportation often plays a central role, too many voices remain unheard, or at the very least are not heard as loudly as they should be.

There is an overwhelming global wave towards the electrification of automotive fleets, with vehicles powered exclusively by energy obtained from a plug, to charge large batteries. Before we throw ourselves mindlessly into this race, we need to “unmute” for a second, and provide a couple of considerations.

Presuming the goal is an effective decarbonization of transport, which today accounts for a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, our premise should focus on the methodology we should use to measure the environmental impact of each proposed solution. Electric vehicles running 100% on battery power may have very questionable environmental impacts, depending on the source of electricity used, such as coal-based thermal power which is very polluting.

Experts regularly point out that ‘tank to wheel’ methodologies, that merely focus on the vehicle, are largely ineffective in the fight against climate change. It would be far more adequate to use methodologies that include a life-cycle analysis, ‘from well to wheel’, that could measure the environmental impact on the basis of carbon emission per kilometer along the entire production chain of the fuel and the vehicle.

To build a strategy around gains in environmental and energy efficiency, it is necessary to analyze alternative technology routes and establish degrees of feasibility, as well as urgency considering regional contexts. The truth is that various forms of motorization are bound to coexist. They will be established on the basis of consumers’ purchasing power, utilization patterns, and the availability of resources of each region.

The plug-in car will certainly play a key role in urban centers. But how would such technology be applicable on a national scale in continental-sized countries such Brazil or India? Calculations made by the Energy Research Company (EPE) indicate that in Brazil more than US$ 250 billion would be needed to replace the entire supply infrastructure of filling stations to serve electric cars. Moreover, the cost of large batteries means that plug-in models will remain out of reach of the average Brazilian consumer.

Low-carbon alternatives can diversify these options. Starting with the hybrid-flex vehicle, which generates electricity within the car and reaches the emission standard of 25g CO2/km when fueled with ethanol — one of the lowest figures in the world. There are also studies involving electric engines with fuel cells using ethanol that run as much as 30 km per liter, with near to zero emissions. For comparison’s sake, a vehicle fueled with pure gasoline emits on average 155g CO2/km and the European plug-in electric car emits around 54 g CO2/km. Both are far more polluting than the flex-fuel car that has been used in Brazil for almost two decades now and that emits 34g CO2/km using ethanol. The reason is that the biofuel produced from sugarcane provides a reduction of up to 90% in GHG emissions when compared to fossil fuels.

Today, the world calls for alternatives that will “flatten the emissions curve” and prevent the imminent collapse caused by climate change. Ethanol has much to contribute to sustainable mobility, which, over the course of this century, should take on multiple forms and integrate numerous technological solutions. It’s time to unmute the microphone!

Eduardo Leão
Eduardo Leão

Executive Director of UNICA

Former Senior Economist and Cluster Leader for agricultural and environmental programs at the World Bank in Washington (from 2003 to 2007), he joined UNICA in October of 2007. Prior to that, he was the head for agricultural and agroindustrial products at the Brazilian Ministry of Economics from 1999 to 2002. A former head of the Economic Department at the São Paulo State Federation of Agriculture (FAESP), he was also a Senior Researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Institute for Economic Research (FIPE). He holds a BA in Agronomic Engineering, a Master’s degree and a Doctorate in Applied Economics from the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz School of Agronomy.