Conversion of large swaths of Brazilian land for sugar plantations will help the country meet its needs for producing cane-derived ethanol, but it also could lead to important regional climate effects, according to a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The team found that anticipated conversion to sugarcane plantations could lead to a 1 degree Celsius decrease in temperature during the growing season, to be followed by a 1 degree Celsius increase after harvest.

“When averaged over the entire year, there appears to be little effect on temperature,” said Matei Georgescu, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, and lead author of the paper. “However, the temperature fluctuation between the peak of the growing season, when cooling occurs relative to the prior landscape, and crop harvest, when warming occurs compared to the previous landscape, of about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is considerable.”

 

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The researchers published their findings March 7 in the early online edition of Geophysical Research Letters. Co-authors with Georgescu are David Lobell of Stanford University; Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science (both located in Stanford, Calif.); and Alex Mahalov, the Wilhoit Foundation Dean’s Distinguished Professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Countries worldwide are looking to cut their dependence on fossil fuels and bioethanol, and other biofuels are attractive alternatives. In Brazil, the second-largest global producer and consumer of bioethanol, this has led to a boom in sugarcane production.

Based on new laws and trade agreements, Brazil’s production of sugarcane-derived ethanol is expected to increase tenfold over the next decade, with considerable land being converted for growing sugarcane. Much of this expansion is expected to come at a loss of some of the country's native cerrado lands (i.e., tropical savannas of Brazil).