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September 17, 2023 04:25 am | Updated 04:25 am IST
The story so far: On September 10, on the sidelines of the annual G-20 summit in New Delhi, an India-led grouping came together to give impetus to the production and use of biofuels, an alternative to fossil fuels like petroleum and diesel. The grouping, called the Global Biofuels Alliance (GBA) would attempt to bring countries together to co-develop, accelerate technological advances in production processes, and advocate for the use of biofuels particularly in the transport sector. The three founding members, India, the U.S. and Brazil, were joined by Argentina, Canada, Italy and South Africa, who are also G-20 member countries.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines biofuels as “liquid fuels derived from biomass and used as an alternative to fossil fuel based liquid transportation fuels such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels.”
Experts in the field make a distinction between biofuels and sustainable biofuels. The former is derived from crops grown specifically to produce biofuels such as sugarcane, corn, or soybean, and the latter is from agricultural waste, used cooking oil and processed animal residues like fats. The former is colloquially referred to as 1G ethanol, or first-generation biofuel, and the latter as 2G, that is second-generation. This distinction has now come into sharp focus as climate change accelerates, with fears of threat to food security and increased loss of forests and biodiversity due to greater land required for farming. Estimates suggest that well over half of all vegetated land is under cultivation today, and that agriculture is one of the world’s largest carbon emitters. The GBA has emphasised that its focus would be to develop 2G ethanol.
With severe disruptions to global crude oil supplies following the Ukraine war, several countries have been scrambling to find alternatives to the import dependence on petrol and diesel. India, for instance, imports 87% of its crude oil, and it is the main reserve currency expenditure for the country. With transport accounting for about one-quarter of global carbon emissions, there have been renewed attempts to accelerate the decarbonising of this sector, with several countries announcing battery production and electric vehicle (EV) policies and legacy automakers entering the now thriving EV sector. But some modes of transport like aviation, shipping and long-haul trucking will find it harder to reduce carbon emissions than say, self-driven cars or motorbikes. It is here that some experts feel that 2G ethanol could be a valuable substitute.
Most biofuels today are blended with petrol or diesel at varying degrees. For instance, India blends about 10% of biofuels and has plans to double this in the coming years. While some experts feel that accelerating EV adoption and developing alternatives like green hydrogen must be the focus of the ongoing energy transition, others argue that 2G ethanol would soften the impending disruption. It would do so by allowing to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions even while stretching the life of internal combustion engines, giving time for automakers to develop robust alternatives, while increasing farmers’ incomes and providing jobs.
The three founding members of the GBA produce 85% of global biofuels and consume about 81% of it. In line with the renewed push to enhance biofuel use and production, the U.S. announced its latest amended “Renewable Fuel Standard” to substantially increase the production of biofuels and substitute about 1,40,000 barrels per day of crude oil imports by 2025. Similarly, India had announced the setting up of 12 new refineries as early as 2018 with the aim to meet 20% ethanol blending by 2025. This becomes even more significant following India’s announcement to become net zero (removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as human activity emits) by 2070. The IEA predicts that about two-thirds of the global biofuel demand will come from three emerging economies – India, Brazil and Indonesia, and that they have “ample domestic feedstocks, additional production capacity, relatively low production costs and a package of policies they can leverage to increase demand.” However, it remains to be seen if this would indeed hasten decarbonising of the energy sector.
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