The Value of Biofuels in a Post-Covid World


The Covid-19 pandemic will cause us all to think differently about the way we live. When we can enjoy seemingly minor luxuries like eating in a restaurant or walking through a reopened shopping mall a sense of normalcy may return.
Until then, we are learning more about the virus and the disease every day. One major finding is that people living in areas with dirty air have a far greater chance of dying of Covid-19.

Work conducted in the United States by Xiau Wu from Harvard University found that an increase of just 1 𝜇g / m3 of particulate matter of 2.5𝜇m (PM2.5) in the air is associated with an 8 percent increase in COVID-19 mortality.
The reasons, although not yet clearly defined, are probably due to syndromes caused by the action of these particles within our body, especially in the lungs and circulatory system. The greater the exposure to this particulate, the greater the mortality.
A second relationship also emerged. The lower the purchasing power, the greater the exposure to dirty air. Initially, researchers believed blacks and Latinos had a genetic predisposition to the Covid-19 disease, but the reality is they are more prone to live in suboptimal environs.

The culprit is easy to identify. It is the imperfect combustion of the long molecules of fossil fuels which are difficult to be accessed by oxygen. Instead of burning completely, many of these chains bend and roast and give rise to small coals which end up in our lungs.
The equation is changed for the better when biofuels are added to the mix, especially sugarcane ethanol. The existence of oxygen in this molecule makes internal combustion much more efficient, with a reduction of more than 90 percent in particulate formation. Covid-19 reminds us that biofuels produced from renewable materials are part of the solution to lower atmospheric ity that promise to do grave damage to our respiratory system.

We can look to Brazil – the world’s second largest ethanol producer – for innovative ideas in promoting biofuels. The use of pure or higher blends sugarcane ethanol in gasoline in the Brazilian light fleet has dramatically improved air quality in the country, especially in the city of Sao Paulo. Most recently Brazil launched RenovaBio, a program that remunerates biofuel producers with financial securities to be traded on the stock exchange and whose value will depend on the perception of the importance of the environment. But the Covid-induced economic crisis has set a trap. The need for recovery can make us want to price energy sources again just for their pure energy content and not for their externalities. That would be a big mistake, which we need to avoid under the penalty of cultivating new catastrophes.

We will eventually beat Covid-19, but it would be a travesty to ignore what we have just learned about the dynamic between air quality and this respiratory disease. We can no longer simply price ethanol and gasoline as equals. Although both are combustible, their values are very different, and the time is right to recognize it.

Goncalo Pereira is Full Professor at UNICAMP, Sao Paulo, Brazil and coordinator of the Genomics and Bioenergy Laboratory and the International Doctoral Program in Bioenergy.

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