Features International Sugar Journal

Why it’s essential to drive sustainability in the sugarcane sector, now

Climate change is impacting sugarcane production. Bonsucro, the leading global sustainability platform for sugarcane, has increasingly heard from its members how the adverse impacts of drought, heavy rainfall, and extreme heat are impacting their businesses.

Sustainability is no longer a nice to have, it’s a core business risk. However, there are solutions – we can improve the way sugarcane is farmed and processed and explore how the crop can be a part of a lower carbon economy.

Although there is no definitive global study concluding what the impact of climate change will be on sugarcane, the IPCC interactive atlas1 shows that some regions will suffer from more consecutive dry days and days with temperatures above 35ºC.

Water depletion and pollution were already major risks in some sugarcane origins, and these are being exacerbated by climate change. Reductions in yields could force people out of work, ultimately leading to migration and poverty, driving food prices even further up, and disrupting entire supply chains. The risk is serious and very real.

In the sugarcane supply chain, production accounts for the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the supply chain – 400 million tons of CO2 equivalent2 annually. The biggest contributors are the use of machinery, fertilisers and pesticides, and practices such as burning cane, applying effluents to the soil, and irrigation.

The sugarcane industry must use this insight and reduce emissions. However, we can also look to our sector for solutions to the climate crisis. Sugarcane is versatile, and a source of renewable energy in the form of bioethanol and biogas.

As an affordable, low-carbon biofuel, sugarcane ethanol has emerged as a leading renewable fuel for transport. Plant-based ethanol produces up to 90% less GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels3, performing better than any other liquid biofuel produced at scale. Sugarcane ethanol has been a mainstream fuel in Brazil since the 1970s – between 1975 and 2020 it replaced over 3.20 billion barrels of gasoline.

India and Brazil, two key origins for Bonsucro, have created an alliance for biofuels and energy. A delegation from India recently visited Brazil to learn about ethanol production, the technology available and hybrid cars. This will undoubtedly support the rapid expansion in ethanol production that is currently taking place in India. Sunil Kumar, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas joint secretary, recently noted that he is confident that 20% ethanol blending in gasoline would be achieved by 2025-264.

Advances in biotechnology has made sugar a superb feedstock to produce a range of chemicals. Amyris, a synthetic biotechnology and renewable chemical company has been using Bonsucro-certified sugarcane to make a chemical called Neossance™ Squalane. This is an emollient ingredient in beauty products with moisturising and anti-ageing properties. It’s used in place of traditional squalane, derived from shark livers. Apparently, some 2.7 million sharks are killed every year to source squalene5.

Innovation in packaging is gaining momentum.  Cane bagasse or ethanol are sourced for packaging production. Tetra Pak has been a certified Bonsucro member since 2019 and offers cartons with bioplastic lids made from sugarcane. Other members include Eco-Products, which makes compostable plates, bowls, and containers and Essity which makes hygiene products with sugarcane fibres.

Bonsucro is behind diversifying the sugarcane supply chain and embracing new technologies. But if we expand how we use sugarcane, it’s essential to consider the sustainability of production. Emissions can be lowered in production by altering agrochemical use, reducing water use, and considering biodiversity. All of this is included in our Production Standard. A metric system offering measurable data and real-time insights on essential sustainability indicators. This equips producers with the insights on where they can make changes to further reduce their environmental impact. It also helps buyers understand their supply chains and where they can support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to meet reduction targets.

Scientific models6 indicate that global adoption of the Bonsucro Standard would halve GHG emissions, and reduce water use by 65%. Although universal Bonsucro certification may not be achievable, the data provides useful insights. Measurement and insights are useful, but they only take you so far.  We need a clearly defined pathway to drive sector wide climate action in line with the Paris Agreement7. Bonsucro is taking this on, we’re working on an initiative aligned to the Science Based Targets initiative to build consensus on that pathway for the sugarcane sector and use our convening role to secure commitments.

Sugarcane is integral to many national economies, millions of people rely on it for their livelihood, and it’s essential for many products across the world. We have a responsibility to create a sustainable and resilient sector, whether the sugarcane is being used in traditional or newer markets. Bonsucro has the methodologies, assurance system, and insights to support sustainable cane production.


Danielle Morley, CEO Bonsucro, www.bonsucro.com




1 https://interactive-atlas.ipcc.ch/regional-information IPCC Interactive Atlas

2 The Economist, https://view.e.economist.com/?qs=800887f3b45594f7c57ca925e8e248bb12cca115d085877b6617993d235ad5a0ebcdb411bb43a566f5c57f67534b80ce81e404e2450e99bc0c58e1b83c5d22a96794bde3638a343dc5c6d7e06584c919

3 UNICA, https://unica.com.br/setor-sucroenergetico/etanol/

4 Ethanol Producer Magazine, https://ethanolproducer.com/articles/19273/india-amends-biofuels-policy-accelerates-introduction-of-e20

5 https://sharkstewards.org/about-sharkstewards/what-we-do/shark-squalene/

6 Smith WK et al, Voluntary sustainability standards: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, February 2019, https:// www.pnas.org/content/116/6/2130/

7 United Nations Climate Change, The Paris Agreement https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement