Sugarcane, of which SA has too much for domestic use. Picture: iSTOCK
Sugarcane, of which SA has too much for domestic use. Picture: iSTOCK

As South Africans navigate a festive season offering the relief of a lower fuel price — while taking a toll in disruption due to load-shedding — it all points to the shameful slow progress the country has made in developing a biofuels industry. This should change given the dire warnings from theUN that countries across the globe need to act far more quickly to limit global warming.

The time is past for debate on whether SA should produce fuel ethanol, primarily from excess sugar, the issue now is how quickly it can happen. Ethanol is a low-emissions fuel, and can make an important contribution to slowing global warming.

A UN report says that unprecedented changes are required now if the Earth is to remain safe and habitable after 2030. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says this means urgent changes across a number of areas if global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C rather than the potentially disastrous 2°C that has been forecast.

The temperature changes involved seem small, but the implications are vast. The world has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels, which has changed weather patterns and temperatures in a number of regions, including SA. A rise of 2°C — the level agreed at the 2015 Paris conference on climate change — would bring more heat waves, flood-causing storms, droughts and a massive extinction of species, the report says. Hence the new focus on stopping a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C.

The areas where “rapid and far-reaching changes” are needed if this is to be achieved include fuel and transport. This is where fuel ethanol can make its contribution.

In some 60 countries, from Brazil and the US to Zimbabwe and Malawi, cars already run on a blend of fuel ethanol and petrol. SA, which has abundant supplies of sugar from which to make fuel ethanol, has yet to finalise a biofuels policy

The need is local, as well as global. SA is already experiencing weather changes, as illustrated by the Cape Town drought and resultant water crisis. An additional rise in temperature will bring more extreme weather, heatwaves, droughts and crop losses, including maize. The result will be more hunger and poverty.

While the need for change is urgent, SA is way behind the world in the production and use of ethanol in its fuel mix. In some 60 countries, from Brazil and the US to Zimbabwe and Malawi, cars already run on a blend of fuel ethanol and petrol. SA, which has abundant supplies of sugar from which to make fuel ethanol, has yet to finalise a biofuels policy.

The UN report shows the urgent need to catch up. In SA, a blend of 2% fuel ethanol, rising over a number of years to 10% and more, would help the country reduce the harmful emissions from burning fossil fuels. Because ethanol is a cleaner-burning fuel, with lower carbon dioxide emissions, this, in turn, would help the country meet its commitment, made at the 2015 Paris conference, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020, and by 42% by 2025.

While the world has raced ahead on biofuels, SA has dithered. Since 2007 it has had a stop-start policy on fuel ethanol, drafting and then scrapping ethanol strategies and blending proposals. It is heartening to note that the idea has recently been revived; and the government now plans to finalise a biofuels regulatory framework and have it approved by the cabinet by the end of March 2019.

Previous ethanol deadlines have come and gone, but this one must not be allowed to slip. With 2019 an election year, the danger is that politicians might turn their attention to what they regard as more pressing issues. As the UN report demonstrates, climate change is a global priority, because the future of the world is at stake.

Abundant sugar

There are other pressing reasons why ethanol should be a priority in SA. The country produces abundant amounts of sugar, from which more than 60% of the world’s fuel ethanol is made. However, much of this sugar is exported at a loss, because  production exceeds local demand. Together with rising imports, the result is that the South African sugar industry and thousands of jobs in poverty-stricken rural areas are at risk.

A fuel ethanol industry, based on sugarcane, would thus have multiple benefits. As a cleaner-burning fuel, it would help slow down global warming. The use of locally produced ethanol would reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil, which would help the balance of payments by saving on import costs.

While fuel ethanol would be more expensive than petrol, at least initially, critics of an ethanol policy rarely consider the dire economic consequences of climate change – droughts, crop failures, water shortages, and so on. The potential economic impact of a damaging rise in temperature would be huge; Cape Town’s water crisis would be exacerbated, and researchers warned recently that changing sea surface temperatures might make SA’s east coast vulnerable to Category 5 tropical cyclones, which bring with them devastating wind and flood damage.

An ethanol programme would also revitalise the South African sugar industry, which needs to diversify if it is to survive. The world sugar market is distorted and complex, and the global sugar price is below the cost of production for most countries because the major producers dump often subsidised excess production onto the market.

The result is that nearly every one of more than 100 sugar-producing countries, including SA, has measures to protect its local industry. Despite these measures, large volumes of subsidised imports are taking up an increasing proportion of the local market, with the result that even bigger volumes of local production has to be exported unprofitably.

SA produces some 2.2-million tonnes of sugar a year, of which 40% is exported to countries outside the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). A growing ethanol industry would absorb much of the sugar that is currently exported, while additional land planted with sugarcane for ethanol would stop job losses and industry contraction, leading instead to investment and job creation. The sugar industry estimates that ethanol production would result in some 24,000 new jobs.

Food security

Another important consideration is that a sugar-based fuel ethanol industry would not impact on SA’s food security, because no production would be diverted from human and animal consumption needs to ethanol. This is not the case with grains, particularly maize, which is grown in large volumes in the United States for the production of biodiesel.

This is why a new ethanol strategy should focus on sugarcane, of which SA already produces 20-million tonnes every year. The government previously proposed an strategy based on sorghum and soya, but both of those are unsuitable in the South African context. The fact is that all of the country’s soya production is consumed locally, and substantial amounts are imported to meet local demand. Sorghum production is small, and even if all of it were diverted to ethanol, it would not be enough to support a single ethanol refinery.

So it is abundantly clear that sugar is the ideal candidate. It has widespread benefits, from climate change mitigation and import replacement, to job creation. It has been ready and waiting for some years, and the only delay in the establishment of an ethanol industry is caused by lack of government urgency.

The worldwide commitment to adopting measures aimed at slowing down global warming should be all the additional motivation that the government needs. Sugar’s time has come.

• Baird is the founder of FairPlay.