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Long way to go for clean energy, 'premature' G20 move for Global Biofuels Alliance

By NS Venkataraman* 

The G20 Meet has launched Global Biofuels Alliance with participation of more than 30 countries and several international institutions to facilitate adoption and production of biofuels in a massive way. Formation of Global Biofuels Alliance is justifiably claimed to be a watershed movement in forging ahead towards clean energy and in overcoming the climate crisis.
It is expected that the Global Biofuels Alliance will support worldwide efforts for research and development to optimise the production process for biofuels and boost the production of biofuels and would offer capacity building support.
Certainly, the objective of Global Biofuels Alliance is laudable and timely. However, it is not certain whether adequate spade work and detailed investigation have been completed to assess the issues and evolve the time bound strategies for achieving the objectives before announcing Global Biofuels Alliance.
If it were to be so, then there have been no signs of visible public consultation or official announcements with regard to the issues and strategies.
While discussing the prospects for biofuels, it would be appropriate to review the progress with regard to other measures initiated so far to overcome the climate crisis. Such review would point to the efforts required and strategies needed to ensure success for the Global Biofuels Alliance.

Incomplete efforts to combat climate crisis

With the climate crisis and global warming being a grave issue and as measures are needed urgently to overcome the challenges, nothing much has been achieved so far on the ground. Even after several global climate conferences including the last one at Egypt, there have been only promises galore, which received media publicity and not much beyond that.
While some steps have been initiated such as applying restrictions on the use of some chemicals such as hydro fluoro carbon (HFCs), the effective steps taken so far are few and far between and the basic issues continue to remain unresolved.
The main cause for global warming and climate crisis is the extensive production and use of fossil fuels based on crude oil and coal and the production of these fossil fuels have not been curtailed in any significant way so far.
The countries producing crude oil, natural gas (which cause emission of noxious methane during handling and transportation) and coal have not reduced the production but we only see signs of increased production of fossil fuel such as coal in India and China.
Countries producing crude oil such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Qatar, USA and others have not announced any time bound plans to curtail production and have refused to commit themselves to any particular schedule for production curtailment.
While the production and use of fossil fuels are continuing, green hydrogen, which is eco friendly, has been sounded as the ultimate solution for climate crisis, Green hydrogen is expected to replace fossil fuel as energy source and also as feedstock source to some extent.
However, for production of green hydrogen, renewable energy power from wind, solar and hydro are required. It appears that even if green hydrogen economy were to become successful in theory, the world can never produce renewable energy to supply the power required adequately for massive green hydrogen generation that would be required to substitute fossil fuel.
Further, green hydrogen technology is still in the work in progress stage and is only evolving at present with no one being sure whether it would be economically viable to replace the fossil fuel. Research and development efforts are still on and ultimate success for green hydrogen economy now remains as a matter of hope.
Electric vehicles have been recommended as an option to check climate crisis. But, the batteries for electrical vehicles have to be charged with energy power and adequate renewable energy in a massive scale cannot be made available at anytime to charge the very large number of electric vehicles to the level of requirement.
Nuclear power is another ecofriendly option but after the Fukushima accident, it has become a controversial subject.
Countries producing crude oil, natural gas and coal have not reduced production. India and China have increased fossil fuel output
Afforestation is yet another positive option but not much progress has been made. A study published in Nature Climate Change in 2022 provided empirical evidence that more than three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest has experienced a decline in resilience since the early 2000s, posing risks of dieback (a disease of trees and shrubs characterized by death of the young shoots, which spreads to the larger branches ) that would impact biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate change.

Focus on biofuel

After such high euphoria over green hydrogen and other options, now biofuel has gained worldwide attention with the launching of Global Biofuels Alliance. While this is a good initiative, there are many hurdles in the way and any thought that biofuel would become a total substitute for fossil fuel amount to wishful thinking at present stage. It appears that biofuel can only partly displace fossil fuel, if it were to be adequately developed and produced.
Production of ethanol from biomass and use of such ethanol as eco friendly biofuel has been repeatedly suggested by several sources including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Biofuel process involves fermentation of biomass and not much biofuel is produced in the world today.
The availability of biomass for massive production of biofuel is itself a matter of doubt. While several ethanol plants based on biomass has been set up in pilot plant scale or semi commercial scale, the feasibility of massive production of ethanol based biofuels remains as a matter of conjecture.
A lot of research efforts have to be put forth for massive production of ethanol from alternate feedstock.
One obvious option is to grow and use algae crop which is a quick growing crop requiring only carbon dioxide and sunshine. It would be vital option as it contain around 20 to 25% of oil. By processing algae crop, not only biofuel but also ethanol, methane (natural gas) can be produced. Till now, algae biofuel has not received the type of global attention that it needs.
Hopefully, Global Biofuels Alliance would put forth maximum efforts to study the feasibility of algae biofuel option and promote focused efforts to develop the technology.
Global Biofuels Alliance is a good and exciting title but the roadmap has several hurdles and it should move on beyond conference rooms. In a conflict ridden world, one has to keep the fingers crossed about the global cooperation on such worthwhile subjects.
*Trustee, Nandini Voice For The Deprived, Chennai



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