Sugarcane Can Cool the Earth in More Ways Than One

sugarcane crops harvested photo
Photo: Sweeter Alternative / cc

In Brazil, products made from sugarcane are ubiquitous. From the nation's favorite liquor, cachaça, to the clean-burning biofuels that power cars and buses, sugarcane has proven to be a particularly diverse natural resource -- but as it turns out, the crop could do wonders for the planet's health, too. According to the latest research, sugarcane crops serve as heat shields, reflecting the sun's warmth back into space while emitting water vapor in the process, effectively cooling the surrounding area where it's planted. Sweet, right?Throughout Brazil, sugarcane has already helped significantly reduced the nation's carbon output as a biofuel, which accounts for 25 percent of the fuel used in automobiles there. Researchers found out, however, that even before the crop is harvested, it actually has the power to cool things down, helping to mitigate the effects of global warming on a local scale.

From New Scientist:

Scott Loarie of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, and colleagues used satellite data to monitor the effects of sugarcane cultivation in the Brazilian savannah. They found that converting natural vegetation to crops warmed the area by 1.6 °C, but a subsequent switch to sugarcane cooled it by 0.9 °C. That's because sugarcane reflects more of the sun's heat and releases extra water vapor.

The exciting potential behind this latest discovery is tempered by the often destructive practices used to achieve it. If areas of native vegetation are cleared to make way for sugarcane crops, warns Loarie, any positive effect on the local climate would be nullified, leading to an overall warming, as is commonly the case in areas of deforestation.

In contrast to traditional fossil fuels, the acquisition of which has caused more than its fair share of ecological disasters, biofuels produced from sugarcane offer hope for a more sustainable energy future. And, if responsibly grown on a wider scale for such uses, the crop just might help cool the planet, too.

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