Worldwide, transportation accounts for a strikingly large share of the total energy consumption. Consequentially, a large share of the world’s carbon emissions can be attributed to transportation as well. This share is actually disproportionately large due to the necessity of having liquid fuels for most automobiles, planes, and trains.
However, the transportation sector is also a highly dynamic field. Due to how quickly transportation related infrastructure ages, as well as the speed of technological advancement seeking to improve preexisting systems, the world seems to be in a constant state of transportation flux. Hybrids, electric, fuel cell, solar, and flex vehicles have all taken shares of what has been considered a traditionally a combustion only realm.
With all of the changes in the fuel sector, it is difficult for most people to keep track of what is ‘green’, or for that matter even what is ‘hip’. Some “advancements” such as EV may offer more issues than they solve, especially with the current battery technology we employ.
Yet, there are some solutions out there that have showed extraordinary excellence and sustainability potential. Interestingly, these systems are not found in the futuristic cities of Asia, nor in the well-monitored cities of Europe. Rather, one of the most advanced sustainable transportation programs is found in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Sao Paulo is a city of nearly 12 million inhabitants, and is actually the largest city in the entire Americas by population. Appropriately, it has a transportation infrastructure designed to match its size. This system includes over 150,000 busses, as well as lighter forms of tram transportation.
For those of you that are peripherally familiar with the economic and energy policies of Brazil, you will understand that is a world leader in ethanol production. Due to the warm climate as well as the vast amounts of arable land, Brazil is the world’s leader in ethanol derived from sugar cane. This ethanol is the most energy advantageous option currently available, and is attractive because sugar is not a staple crop, and therefore does not interfere with human food prices.
Sugarcane ethanol also burns close of 90% cleaner than traditional gasoline. This means, that when coupled with a full life cycle analysis including the refining process, sugarcane ethanol represents a close to 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per kWh when compared to conventional gasoline.
The Brazilian government has recognized the potential of sugarcane ethanol for a long time. Over the last 30 years they have been developing ethanol’s market saturation with well crafted policies and technological advancements.
For light vehicles, Brazil has slowly raised the amount of ethanol required in gasoline up to 25%. This means that for every gallon of “gas”, a quart is ethanol. Amazingly, this modification requires no alteration to a conventional combustion engine. Even the vehicles we drive in America could run off of this mix. Fascinating.
However, Brazil also spawned the development of Flex Fuel Vehicles. These vehicles have only a slightly different engine composition than their conventional combustion cousins, yet the modification allows for them to run on any percentage of ethanol, up to 100%. These cars came to existence close to 15 years ago, and have since accounted for roughly 70% of car sales in Brazil. (I actually own a flex fuel vehicle myself… fun fact).
With this information in mind, Brazil coupled with a few strategic partners worldwide to institute the BEST program. BEST stands for BioEthanol for Sustainable Transportation. Under this program, certain cities globally are trying to alter their existing transportation fleet to better include bioethanol vehicles.
Sao Paulo is a leader in the BEST program, and as well as being the pilot city, it has seen remarkable success. The first aspect in revamping its infrastructure was to phase in over 150 busses that ran on only 95% ethanol mix. These busses have been an enormous success both from a scientific standpoint, but also from a publicity standpoint. As a consequence, Sao Paulo is now in the process of building an entire fleet of similar vehicles.
Other cities worldwide such as Stockholm and Copenhagen have seen the success in Sao Paulo and are now in the process of developing comparable systems. However, it is questionable whether they can emulate the success, simply because Brazil is unique in its ability to manufacture and process sugarcane at such an economical level.
Either way, the revamping of the Sao Paulo transportation system represents one of the most comprehensive moves towards a sustainable public infrastructure that has been seen worldwide. We can only look forward to their continued success.