No Such Thing as a Free Lunch: Miralles-Wilhelm Writes on Brazilian Biofuel Production

By Chrysandra Medley

Biofuels have the potential to play a critical role in climate change mitigation.  With the ability to be sustained indefinitely, with far less pollution-based fallout as compared to fossil fuel production, biofuels could have a dramatic impact on achieving Paris Agreement targets.

However, a new publication whose authors include ESSIC Interim Director and CICS Executive Director Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, articulates that adopting biofuels may not be so simple.

The piece, titled “The land-water nexus of biofuel production in Brazil: Analysis of synergies and trade-offs using a multiregional input-output model”, discusses biofuel production in Brazil, the world’s second largest producer and largest exporter of biofuels.

The authors take a “nexus” perspective to the issue, addressing both land use and water in a combined assessment that considers their total appropriation by biofuel production, with respect to other consumers.

Utilizing a Multiregional input-output (MRIO) analysis– a modeling approach used to trace environmental impacts along supply chains– combined with a water-to-land trade-off ratio, the study assesses the water and land use of bioethanol production, with respect to its associated environmental impacts.

Results show a clear trade-off of water and land impacts between irrigated and rainfed ethanol production.  The authors also found that when introducing scarcity for both water and land in the analysis, the results differ significantly dependent upon location, a finding the researchers feel should be scrutinized when planning future bioethanol expansions.

“Yes, biofuels are good, and they can have a big role in advancing climate change mitigation,” says Miralles-Wilhelm, “But there is no such things as a free lunch and we need to keep our eyes on their use of land and water, as tradeoffs are pretty clear.”

A hydrologist and water resources engineer, Miralles-Wilhelm conducts research on water, sustainability and climate.  He has worked on problems related to surface water and groundwater; physical, chemical and biological processes in aquatic ecosystems; climate-hydrology-vegetation interactions in ecosystems; water resources management in urban and agricultural watersheds; stormwater management; and water quality control.

The paper can be viewed here: “The land-water nexus of biofuel production in Brazil: Analysis of synergies and trade-offs using a multiregional input-output model”.