India, during its G20 Presidency, proposed the formation of the Global Biofuels Alliance (GBA) to enable low-carbon pathways and to underscore the importance of adopting clean technologies.
The GBA should set guidelines for upstream (feedstock, land issues), midstream (chemical pathways for conversion) and downstream (blending and retailing) value chains to ensure that there is no added environmental damage from biofuels.
There needs to be focus on the use of advanced materials as feedstock. To achieve this, the GBA can play a critical role by facilitating the availability of skill and capital resources for technological advancements.
The Global Biofuels Alliance (GBA), formally launched at the G20 Summit in Delhi this year, has intensified the discussion on biofuels in the country. The alliance aims to increase the uptake of biofuels across the globe by serving as an expert hub and a catalytic platform.
Biofuels have the potential to help countries dependent on fossil fuel imports to find a cleaner alternative for energy security in the short-to-medium term. Yet, this comes with a risk. Not picking the right technologies and processes for producing biofuels can add to the climate change mitigation challenge. This where the GBA’s role becomes crucial. It must find the right balance and develop such guidelines that ensure global use of biofuels mitigates climate change.
Biofuels, by definition, are produced from biomass through chemical processes and can be in solid, liquid or gaseous form.
India, during its G20 Presidency, proposed the formation of the GBA to enable low-carbon pathways and to underscore the importance of adopting clean technologies.
In the short- to medium-term, biofuels can cut the dependence on fossil fuels, especially for countries like India that rely on fossil fuel imports for meeting their energy needs. India imports 85% of its oil and 50% of its natural gas requirements. Replacing some of this with biofuels can help enhance energy security as well as lower import bills. India has increased and advanced its target of ethanol blending from 10% or E10 to 20% or E20 by 2025, instead of 2030. With this move, India is expected to save Rs45,000 crore (or US$5.4 billion) in oil imports and 63 million tonne of oil annually.
Many biofuels can be produced from waste and used in place of fossil fuels. For instance, biogas can be generated from press mud, animal waste, crop residue and municipal waste with 45-75% methane content by volume. This can be upgraded using certain techniques to generate over 90% methane content which becomes equivalent to natural gas in energy value and can be injected in the gas grid.
Biogas can also offer a short- to medium-term solution to stubble generation and its subsequent burning, a significant cause of air pollution. Punjab and Haryana produce a total of 25.5 million tonnes of crop stubble on average every year. This can yield 116 million cubic metres (m3) of biogas. Notably, producing 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity requires only 0.75m3 of biogas, while 0.24m3 of biogas is sufficient per person, per day of cooking. This implies that the stubble generated in Punjab and Haryana has the potential to produce approximately 155 gigawatt-hour of electricity or meet the daily cooking needs of 96.5 million families comprising five individuals each.
Role of GBA
The GBA should work on setting guidelines for upstream (feedstock, land issues), midstream (chemical pathways for conversion) and downstream (blending and retailing) value chains to ensure that there is no added environmental damage from biofuels. There needs to be a complete life cycle assessment of biofuels, which goes beyond the reduction in end use emissions, to understand if biofuels are bringing down carbon emissions.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its report released earlier this year to support GBA’s efforts to expand biofuel adoption, outlined three priority areas for the alliance –developing high-potential markets for the sustainable production of biofuels, accelerating technology deployment and establishing performance-based sustainability assessments.
Adhering to these priorities will help increase public and private sector investments and aid the commercialisation of advanced conversion technology. IEA’s 2023 update of the Net Zero Roadmap scenario report notes that modern bioenergy could double by 2050 as it can be a direct substitute for fossil fuels. The report foresees the growth in liquid biofuel production that could cater to the transport sector and other forms of modern bioenergy that could serve the clean cooking, industrial and electricity sectors. According to the IEA , about 30% of bioenergy would be used for power and heating by 2050.
Sustainable feedstock is key
However, the proposed uptake of biofuels, especially liquid biofuels like ethanol, has raised concerns regarding land use and compromising food production for growing energy crops. Land is a finite resource that needs to be used efficiently. IEEFA’s report on India’s ethanol blending notes that to match the distance driven by an EV recharged using one hectare of solar generation, there would be a need to derive ethanol from 251 hectares of sugarcane or 187 hectares of maize – even accounting for losses from electricity transmission, battery charging and grid storage. With increasingly erratic weather patterns, water-intensive crops like sugarcane and maize that are used for ethanol production would require more irrigation, resulting in higher carbon dioxide emissions. These would then require even major land use changes.
Therefore, there needs to be a clear focus on using sustainable feedstock for producing biofuels and on technological advancements to enable the use of advanced materials as feedstock. The GBA can play a critical role here by setting guidelines and principles, and by facilitating the availability of skill and capital resources for technological advancements.
According to the IEA, “There are sufficient sustainable feedstocks available to support the tripling of biofuel production by 2030 within strict sustainability bounds.” The proposed expansion of biofuels and opening of new markets are also expected to increase the availability of sustainable feedstock.
If land is used for growing energy crops for biofuel production, then there is a high possibility that the proposed methane emission that is expected to be curbed with the use of biofuel will actually increase. Instead, a technical report of the IEA on bioenergy points to the use of waste and agricultural residue, transition to lignocellulosic feedstock and increasing agriculture productivity as ways to lower the impact of land use change emissions.
The availability of waste and feedstock would vary by country. Country assessments would allow for higher uptake without compromising on food crops. There is a need for supporting private participation and investments, and most importantly, for establishing well-functioning markets.
GBA can draw from similar work done by other groupings
GBA must also build on the work done by similar consortiums, such as the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) and the Clean Energy Ministerial Biofuture Platform. The GBEP was initiated in 2006 and has 80 members – 53 countries and 27 international organisations. The GBA could use GBEP’s set of 24 science-based sustainability indicators for bioenergy to enable informed decision-making. The Clean Energy Ministerial Biofuture Platform is a 23-country grouping that was initiated in 2016 to promote innovative and scalable low-carbon bioeconomy by promoting best policies and enabling transformative financing mechanism.
Overall, the GBA must take a holistic view for the implementation of biofuels in a manner that serves the purpose of climate change mitigation rather than add to it.
This article was first published on Mongabay.