Goldemberg wins 2010 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize
José Goldemberg, a world-renowned energy expert who helped lay the scientific foundation for Brazil’s biofuels programme and who subsequently became a leading advocate for the adoption of “leapfrog” technologies to promote economic development in the developing world, has won the 2010 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize.
The Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize, co-sponsored by illycaffè, TWAS and the Ernesto Illy Foundation, is an annual prize given to a renowned researcher in a developing country or country with an emerging economy who has made significant contributions to science and scientific innovation. The prize, now in its sixth year, includes a cash award of USD100,000.
In a seminal article published in Science magazine in 1978, Goldemberg and his colleagues presented compelling scientific evidence showing that biofuels derived from sugarcane could reduce the use of fossil fuels in Brazil while rendering substantially less harm to the environment.
“At the time,” Goldemberg says, “efforts to develop biofuels in Brazil were justified largely on the basis of energy security. Our research demonstrated that biofuels production in Brazil would not only significantly decrease the use of fossil fuels use but also help curtail air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Goldemberg’s findings bolstered the efforts of the Brazilian government, which had launched a biofuels programme in 1975 in response to the international oil crisis. In the early 1970s, the government’s primary goal was to overcome possible supply disruptions from abroad by developing domestic sources of fuel.
By verifying biofuel’s positive energy balance and adding an environmental dimension to the argument, Goldemberg strengthened support for Brazil’s biofuels programme, helping to ensure its long-term viability.
Today, Brazil produces 30 billion litres of sugar-based ethanol each year, which replaces 50% of the petrol used in the country. Ethanol production and distribution generates USD30 billion each year in revenues (about 5% of Brazil’s gross domestic product) and accounts for one million jobs in Brazil.
Trained as a physicist at the University of São Paulo, Goldemberg did postgraduate work in Canada and the United States before returning to his alma mater in the mid-1950s, where he earned a PhD and then became a full professor and subsequently rector.
In the early 1990s, he was Brazil’s Federal Secretary of Science and Technology and Minister of Education. In 1992, while serving as the interim Federal Secretary of Environment, he was one of Brazil’s highest-level representatives at the “Earth Summit” in Rio.
From 2002 to 2006, he served as the Secretary of Environment in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state and largest producer of biofuels.
In 2000, Goldemberg was named chairman of the board and lead author of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) World Energy Assessment. In 2007, he co-chaired the InterAcademy Council (IAC) study panel responsible for the report, Lighting the Way: Towards a Sustainable Energy Future.
Goldemberg has spent a lifetime bridging the world of research and policy, and has long been a passionate advocate of renewable energy. He contends that, by relying on renewable sources of energy, developing countries can “leapfrog” fossil-fuel-dependent developed countries and “chart a more viable path for sustainable development.”
He first outlined this paradigm for economic development in a book, Energy for a Sustainable World, which he co-authored with Thomas B. Johannsson, Amulya K.N. Reddy and Robert Williams in 1988. The book helped to redirect discussions on the relationship between energy and economic development, convincing policy-makers of the important role that innovative technologies could play in providing adequate, environmentally sound supplies of energy to meet the developing world’s growing energy needs.
In recent years, he has led scientific discussions concerning biofuels’ potential impact on food security and forest and agricultural land. Goldemberg’s studies have shown that only a small amount of additional land will be needed to meet the projected demand for biofuels over the next decade (an estimated 4% of the total 1.5 million hectares available on a global scale).
Together with the development of second-generation technologies and access to marginal pasturelands, he says, there is good reason to believe that “additional lands could be cultivated for biofuels without placing other worthy environmental and land use goals at risk.”
“Biofuels,” Goldemberg notes, “were the primary source of energy from the dawn of civilization until the 19th century when their use was eclipsed first by coal and then oil and gas production.” Today, biofuels represent about 10% of primary energy consumption.
“In a world increasingly concerned about future energy supplies and the spectre of global warming, the continued development of biofuels will likely prove an essential ingredient of sustainable economic growth,” Goldemberg says.
As the Brazilian experience shows, biofuels can help nations gain prosperity, security and sustained growth without jeopardizing the environment. And, as the path breaking research of Goldemberg illustrates, the success of such efforts often depends on the quality and depth of the science that drives and shapes the policy debate.