The burning of sugarcane fields prior to harvest for ethanol production can create air pollution that detracts from the biofuel’s overall sustainability, according to research published recently by a team of researchers led by UC Merced scientists.
UC Merced graduate student Chi-Chung Tsao was the lead author on the paper and was aided in the study by UC Merced professors Elliott Campbell and Yihsu Chen. The study — published online this week in the Nature Climate Change journal — focused on Brazil, the world’s top producer of sugarcane ethanol and a possible source for U.S. imports of the alternative fuel.
“There is a big strategic decision our country and others are making, in whether to develop a domestic biofuels industry or import relatively inexpensive biofuels from developing countries,” Campbell said. “Our study shows that importing biofuels could result in human health and environmental problems in the regions where they are cultivated.”
Ethanol is seen as an alternative to fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gasses when used and are a major contributor to air pollution and climate change. But despite some governments encouraging farmers to reduce field burning — which is done in part to protect farmworkers by removing sharp leaves and harmful animals — more than half of sugarcane croplands in Brazil continue to be burned.
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