Nov 7, 2008

India - Questions on bio-fuel

It is not often that an issue approved by the Cabinet, after having been vetted by a group of ministers (GoM), is sent back to the GoM for review. But such has been the fate, for understandable reasons, of the national policy on bio-fuels which was formally okayed by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in September. What has triggered this unusual move is the rural development ministry’s plea that the techno-economic feasibility of bio-energy plantations needs to be validated through on-field trials and demonstrations before being commercialised. After all, not much is known about the agronomic practices for growing jatropha, the main bio-fuel species, or the technology and economics of down-the-line oil extraction and bio-fuel production operations. The potential environmental impact of large scale mono-species jatropha plantations is also unknown. The millions of jatropha saplings planted in Chhattisgarh in past years are yet to come to bearing, and the effort to introduce these plants in Haryana collapsed because the plant could not withstand the summer heat.

Despite this knowledge gap, the national bio-fuel policy mooted that jatropha be grown on a big enough scale to produce green-fuel that would be enough to replace as much as 20 per cent of petrol and diesel consumption by 2017. This would require bio-energy plantations to cover between 30 million and 40 million hectares of land — an area larger than that under wheat today. That such goals are unattainable is obvious, as is the fact that so much waste land is unlikely to be available, in view of the overall scarcity of land and its ownership issues. The forest departments and panchayats, which own much of the degraded land, are known to be reluctant to part with them. And arable agricultural land ought not be diverted from food crops; nor is it expected to be diverted, unless the economic feasibility of bio-fuel production is established. Besides, the target of enhancing the petrol-blending level to 20 per cent in the next decade or less seems Utopian, considering that even the 5 per cent doping level already mandated has remained elusive and the plans to upscale it to 10 per cent by last month were unceremoniously shelved for want of adequate ethanol.

Even if all these issues are either brushed aside or resolved, the fundamental question that remains unanswered is whether the land-based production of bio-fuel will serve the intended objectives of achieving energy security and protecting the environment without adverse side-effects, such as scarcity of, and escalation in, food prices. This is an issue being debated globally, especially after the recent spurt in the prices of all agro-commodities, including foodgrain—caused, in part, by the diversion of corn and edible oils to bio-fuel production. The view is gaining ground that most countries, including India, have rolled out their bio-fuel plans without weighing the pitfalls and the risks. Those advocating caution on this front include the generally trustworthy Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations,and the UK’s national science academy, the Royal Society. It makes sense, therefore, to comprehensively test the techno-economic and environmental parameters of bio-fuel production before committing vast tracts of scarce land for it. The use of agricultural and agro-industrial by-products, such as bio-mass and molasses, for manufacturing bio-fuel is probably a far better option and needs to be encouraged.

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