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Farm to fuel: the biofuel breakdown

Biofuels are being seen as a green energy source to combat climate change, but what does it mean for farmers who are migrating as climate losses mount

Jan 25, 2024

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There were two significant events last year in the ongoing global fight to combat climate change: the launch of a Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) in September at the G20 Summit in New Delhi and an agreement at the COP28 Summit in Dubai in December to set up a ‘loss and damage’ fund to support countries to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy. The intricacies and fallacies of the two can be another topic of discussion, but here we try and understand the relevance, and importance of the GBA.

What is the Global Biofuel Alliance?

The GBA, led by India, Brazil, and the US, brings together 22 countries and 12 international organizations. The alliance aims to ‘drive development and deployment of biofuels,’ through capacity building, technology advancements and support, and sharing of best practices to expand sustainable biofuel production and use. 

 

The governance framework and action plan of the GBA are still in the making, and align with the 2050 target to achieve Net Zero Emissions (NZE), that a growing number of countries are pledging to achieve after the Paris Agreement in 2015 called for to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius. The International Energy Agency (IEA), however, points out that to achieve this target the global biofuel production needs to be tripled by 2030 to help reduce carbon emissions in the transport sector. 

The current global biofuel production is less than half of what is required! 

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What will the GBA help with?

 

Almost 80% of global biofuel production is concentrated in just four markets – the US, Brazil, the European Union and Indonesia. This accounts for only half of global transport fuel demand, and as of 2022 India’s contribution stands at 2% and growing. Thus, developing new markets to expand sustainable biofuel production and use is the next logical step and the one that the GBA aims to do. 

 

Will the GBA help India achieve its own energy-transition pathway to reach NZE by 2070? And what will its impact be on people and their livelihoods? Answers to these questions require a scientific/technical understanding of biofuels and a grasp on social realities that will define the acceptance of this new technology in the country. 

What are biofuels?

Biofuels – liquid or gas – are derived from organic matter (biomass) as feedstock and can be replenished as against fossil fuels, making them a renewable source of energy. The two most common biofuels in use globally are bioethanol and biodiesel, predominantly as transportation fuel blended in gasoline and diesel respectively. They represent first generation biofuel technology sourced from food-based plants containing sugars, cellulose, and vegetable fats/oil. Non-food feedstocks such as grass, agricultural/forestry waste, industrial/municipal waste, and algae towards biofuel production (second generation) offer good alternatives to counter food vs. fuel security issues.  

 

Biomass from sugarcane, or corn or any other grain, even fruits and vegetables, contain sugar. These sugars, when subjected to fermentation release ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide as by-products – like making wine in wineries using grapes as a source of sugar. The ethanol produced can be distilled and used as fuel. In theory, the bottle of wine in your house can drive your car!

 

The entire biofuel production cycle, however, is a lot more complicated and which we will discuss in the next segment of this series. 

The biofuel sector in India

 

Bioethanol accounts for two thirds of global biofuel production, with the US, Brazil and India being the worlds top three producers and consumers, while Europe and Indonesia lead in biodiesel production. Sugarcane provides the bulk of feedstock for ethanol production in India with the remainder from grains such as maize and surplus rice stock assessed by the Food Corporation of India.

 

The rise of biofuel sector in India is policy driven and the availability of biomass feedstock. The National Policy on Biofuels in India was published by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2018 and later amended in 2022. The policy sets blending targets for bioethanol (Ethanol Blended Petrol or EBP programme) and biodiesel, broadens the scope of feedstocks, provide guaranteed ethanol pricing, and investment support for new ethanol facilities and upgrade old ones. Bioethanol production in India has tripled in the last five years, with ethanol blending quadrupling to about 12% in 2023. India is on a fast track to achieving its target of 20% blending by year 2025-26, and 5% biodiesel blending by year 2030. Biodiesel production in India, however, stands at less than 1% of diesel demand in the country.  

 

The migration link

At the core of the biofuel sector in India is agriculture and by extension the farmers, and how this affects rural economies. India being an agrarian country with over 50% of the land classified as arable, the agricultural industry contributes about 18% towards the GDP. But the sector is amongst the worst hit by climate change as crops fail, yields drop impacting farmer incomes, which is driving rural-urban migration with many leaving their homes to find work in cities.

 

The aggressive bioethanol push promises to create opportunities for farmers in a growing industry to generate additional income contributing towards energy security in addition to food security. But for that, it would need to be a farmer-centric, incentive-driven policy that offers alternate solutions to farming practices without threatening livelihoods. 

(This is the first in a two-part series on the rise of the biofuel sector and the role farmers can play in it. The second part will explore the biofuel sector’s socio-economic impact)

Helpful resources on biofuels

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