Fuel venture faces choking: Brazil may stop filling its cars with alcohol, writes Phil Davison

PESSANHA, a 45-year-old Rio taxi driver, lounged in the shade of his locally-built 1989 Chevrolet Commodore, seemingly oblivious to the flow of sun-tanned flesh along the nearby Copacabana beach. 'I'm worried. Without alcohol, I don't know if I can survive,' he said.

The genial cabbie, who lives in a favela (slum) above the city's Sheraton Hotel and plies Copacabana to seek a wealthier clientele, is not an alcoholic. His car is.

He was commenting on reports that Brazil may be about to end its unique and popular experiment with alcohol-driven cars. Launched in 1975, in the wake of the Opec crisis and spiralling oil prices, it seemed a good idea at the time. To the 4 million of Brazil's 12 million car owners whose vehicles run on sugar-cane alcohol, as well as the nation's ecologists, it still does.

The alcohol cars produce far fewer pollutants than their petrol-fuelled counterparts and do not add to the greenhouse effect. The trouble is that, with the plunge in oil prices, the sugar-cane alcohol is costing more to produce per barrel than oil imports and costs the state a fortune in subsidies which it can ill afford.

That is the official line and it is true enough. The less publicised version, though, and the one cited by Pessanha and many Brazilians I spoke to, is that moves to end the alcohol experiment are highly political, pushed by the state energy monopoly, Petrobras, and the motor industry. For them, petrol engines are a more lucrative proposition.

For the nation's poorer families, however, the alcohol cars are cheaper to buy and to run. A litre of 'gasohol' costs around 12,400 cruzeiros (roughly 35p) while alcohol is on sale at 9,750 (about 25p). Filling stations have pumps for both. Petrol-engines were phased out during the 1980s. 'Gasohol' is a mix of roughly 80 per cent petrol and 20 per cent alcohol. 'My engine was made for alcohol. If they stop alcohol, I'll have to have it converted. That would be likely to cost me at least pounds 1,000,' Pessanha told me. That is two years' wages for the average Brazilian worker and means a lot of money to Pessanha, who is trying to get his family out of the slums. 'I get slightly less power with alcohol but that doesn't bother me. The only problem is in winter, when the alcohol engine is slower to start.' He raised his bonnet to show me an auxiliary tank containing about half a litre of petrol that feeds automatically into the carburettor as a 'choke' system in cold weather.

A conversion means changing the pistons, the fuel tank, fuel lines and carburettor. Alcohol - or, strictly speaking, 'ethanol' - engines emit up to one-third less carbon monoxide than petrol engines, a factor considered vital by ecologists in giant conurbations such as Rio or Sao Paulo. The environmentalists estimate that abandoning alcohol and converting to gasohol would boost carbon monoxide emissions in big cities by more than one-third. Converting to pure petrol would more than double such pollution, they say.

There is little sign that the fat cats in the energy monopoly, or the government, are listening. Many Brazilians believe President Itamar Franco sympathises with the Petrobras and car industry lobby while his disgraced predecessor, Fernando Collor de Mello, because he came from a northern sugar-producing state, had leaned towards the pro-alcohol programme despite its problems.

While the sugar industry has gratefully used the 'green argument' for alcohol, its motives have not always been squeaky-clean. There have been shortages at the pumps over the past few years, sometimes because of poor weather affecting sugar-cane crops, but often for another reason: if world sugar prices were high, the cane farmers simply churned out sugar, ignoring the national need for motor fuel.

If sugar prices were low, the producers could still not lose. Petrobras is obliged by law to subsidise sugar-cane alcohol production and keep it below the price of gasohol. The fact that Brazilian taxpayers - by no means all alcohol car owners - are therefore subsidising car alcohol cars has added more public weight to the scrap-alcohol movement.

The sugar lobby says production costs could be slashed with more state investment. The pulp left over from the crushed cane, known as bagasse, is used for animal fodder, while other residue provides good quality fertiliser. Steam turbines produce electricity from burnt left-over cane but experts say better quality turbines could provide enough power to make the alcohol-producing plants self-sufficient.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice