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Why They Drive Sugar-powered Cars in Brazil


News from Climate Science: Once a month, climate researchers report on their latest findings in the newspaper "Hamburger Abendblatt". Daniele Vieira do Nascimento is a governance researcher and researched the flex fuel boom in Brazil.

Sugarcane in the tank: Brazil’s flex-fuel cars can run on gasoline or bioethanol
Daniele Vieira do Nascimento is a governance researcher and was part of the Brazilian delegation to the Climate Change Conference in Paris

Being able to run on the fuel of your choice, depending on which is currently the most affordable – what may sound like a dream to many drivers in Germany has long since become a reality in Brazil. Nearly all of the vehicles now on Brazil’s roadways are what have been dubbed flex-fuel cars; they are compatible with both gasoline and bioethanol, which is processed using climate-neutral methods in Brazil. Over the past decade, Brazil has implemented this technology in record time: in 2002 flex-fuel engines weren’t even on the market, yet only two years later 60 percent of new cars were flex-fuel. How did the new technology spread at such breathtaking speed?

Sometimes gasoline is the cheaper choice, sometimes it’s bioethanol

To answer that question, I spoke with government officials, politicians, engineers, auto managers and lobbyists in Brazil and analyzed studies and documents from the years before and during the flex-fuel boom. What I found surprised me: prior to the boom, the most important decision-makers in the political and commercial sector showed no interest whatsoever in the flex-fuel technology. Yet it spread like wildfire. The explanation: the essential impulse came from Brazil’s car owners themselves.

Before the flex-fuel boom, Brazilians either drove vehicles that ran on conventional gasoline, or that ran on bioethanol. The Brazilian government had provided major incentives for bioethanol production and the manufacture of ethanol-fuelled cars. The problem for drivers: fuel prices varied so drastically to match changing government policies that sometimes gasoline was cheaper; at others, ethanol was. In response, many Brazilians simply put whatever was cheaper in their tanks – but in the long run, most vehicles couldn’t take the constant switching back and forth. Taxis breaking down in the middle of the street was a common sight.

Inconsistent government policy

What happened next is what we researchers call a “bottom-up process,” i.e. a process that is set in motion from below, and not imposed “from above” by the top management or the state: engineers working in R&D began experimenting with software that could modify motors to accept both types of fuel or mixture. One engineer told me how he first tried out the software in his wife’s car, since he didn’t get any pay for his experiments. Engineers, subcontractors and software developers started exchanging notes on the flex-fuel technology across company borders, until the top managers finally recognized the huge demand and seized the opportunity to capitalize on it.

By purchasing flex-fuel cars by the million, Brazil’s citizens adapted to an inconsistent government policy, which alternated between promoting one fuel industry and then the other. As a result, many Brazilians even view the flex-fuel car as their “national car,” one which optimally fits their country’s unpredictable political changes of course.

The whole Abendblatt-series

Contact Daniele Vieira do Nascimento