Adding fuel to fire

Tags: Petroleum

India’s decision to push forward with biofuel use, despite strong caution by the World Bank against diverting land for ethanol, may need a rethink

Adding fuel to fire
With limited fossil fuel reserves and climate change debate taking centrestage, biofuels were seen as a panacea. Fuel from crops would be available forever to run our cars and trucks. But the law of unintended consequences may be making things worse in the present debate.

When people talk about biofuels, they are essentially referring to ethanol or biodiesel. The US and Brazil account for around 90 per cent of ethanol use and production. Biodiesel is the preferred fuel in the European Union (EU), which accounted for 89 per cent of global production in 2005. The source of ethanol is corn, but sugarcane is increasingly being used. Biodiesel is largely produced from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Biofuels could be classified as carbon neutral in the sense that the CO2 released from burning them is roughly equal to that which would have been sequestered in their plant forms. These fuels act as ‘carbon sinks’ and when compared with petroleum, could reduce CO2 by between 40 per cent and 70 per cent, depending on source material. Automobiles can use petroleum fuel blended with 10 per cent ethanol without any modification. According to US-based renewable fuels association, the use of biofuels could reduce tailpipe carbon monoxide emissions by up to 30 per cent, and fine

particulate matter emissions by 50 per cent.

In September last year, the Indian government announced its national biofuel policy, which aims to meet 20 per cent of India’s diesel demand with fuel derived from plants. In 2007, the government made it mandartory to use fuel blended with 5 per cent ethanol for vehicles, increasing this to 10 per cent in October 2008. The diesel demand replacement alone would mean setting aside 140,000 square kilometres of land for fuel-yielding plants. At present, such plants cover less than 5,000 square km.

To prepare for the rising demand, India’s largest ethanol producer, Bajaj Hindustan, part of the Bajaj Group, is increasing its capacity from 35 million litres to 218 million litres. Largely based in Uttar Pradesh, its factories use sugarcane as feed material.

The biofuels, made under the new government scheme, may displace food crops from viable agricultural land. Corn ethanol or palm biodiesel have caused serious price increases for basic food grains and edible oils in other countries so it poses similar dangers for our country as well. A 2008 World Bank study says 75 per cent of the increase in food prices since 2002 was contributed by biofuels diversion.

Eventually, more land for fuel crops could also do environmental damage and even release carbon dioxide that would offset the climate advantages of burning biofuels. Even converting non-fertile land may be a problem. A report by Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota, says that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannahs or grasslands to grow fuel crops could release 420 times more CO2 than that being produced by burning present fossil fuels.

At their present usage, biofuels represent just 1 per cent of fuel used in transportation sector globally. This means that about 1 per cent of the fertile fields in the world (about 12 million hectares) used to produce food have now been diverted to biofuels. But if all the global fertile fields for food are diverted to produce biofuels can we replace the present source of fossil fuel? The answer is a big No.

According to the international institute for applied systems analysis, a maximum of 300 million hectares worldwide could be used for biofuels. This would meet only one tenth of the projected energy demands for 2030. An estimate by the soil association, quoting organisation for economic cooperation and development (OECD) figures, shows that if the EU gave up 72 per cent

of its arable land, it would only be able to serve 10 per cent of its fuel demand.

Although biofuels could promise benefits for developing economies of India and Africa, there are concerns that this might increase deforestation. An estimate by the World Food Programme says that poor African farmers are willing to sell crops such as ‘cassava’ for use as alternate energy instead of food — for economic reasons. Further, use of nitrogenous fertilisers in biofuel crops will “wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce,” according to a claim by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen.

Biofuels could also create problems for water-scarce countries such as India and China. Sweden’s Stockholm environment institute has estimated that replacing 50 per cent of the fossil fuels with biofuels to meet the 2050 transport and electricity demands would require up to 12,000 extra cubic kilometers of water a year. Comparatively, the total annual flow down the world's rivers is 14,000 cubic kilometers at present.

The best case would be where biofuels are made from native grasses and woody biomass grown on lands unsuitable for crop. Native plants are viewed as ‘carbon negative’ as they can store excess CO2 in their roots and the surrounding soil. In India use of Jatropha plant, with oil-rich seeds, could be the answer. In many remote areas, Jatropha oil has been used as biodiesel in generators and engines. It’s also deemed to be carbon-neutral. Among various options, it may be politically, and, perhaps, morally, the most acceptable.

The writer is a doctoral scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA


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