Encouraging adoption of biofuels, like methanol and biogas, will improve farmer incomes and help fight pollution
Bhai Vijay Chibber
One of the biggest problems our country is facing today is deteriorating air quality, especially in North India. While there are several causative factors, increased emissions from transport sector play a contributory role. As a population’s disposable income grows, transport expenses increase exponentially. In India, studies have found that a 4x higher income translates into 10x increased spend on transport. This is exactly what is happening as India’s 400-million strong middle-class is moving towards greater consumption. While power plants can be remotely located, emissions from transport will always be close to urban areas as long as the combustion takes place in the vehicle engine. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated an association between different levels of air pollution and various health outcomes, including mortality. WHO estimates that air pollution today is linked to 1 in 8 deaths, and that over 7 million people in the world die prematurely due to air pollution. It has been estimated that 620,000 people die each year from air pollution-related causes in India alone. To deal with this problem, a short-term solution can be moving to biofuel-led public transport across the country. This can help bring down pollution levels by up to 90% of carbon emissions by public transport vehicles.
Of the pollutants generated by motor vehicles, diesel exhaust particles account for a very significant percentage. It has been estimated that the particulate emission from diesel engines per unit of travelled distance is over 10 times higher than the emission from petrol engines of equivalent power running on unleaded petrol. In cities, around 50% of local emissions are caused by diesel vehicles, like buses, lorries and trucks. Shifting to ethanol and biogas would imply a 90% emission cut in NOx and particulate matter, compared to the BS-III emission standard in the average diesel bus fleet of India today. Biofuels provide an opportunity to curb emissions within existing systems. In fact, this can even help in eliminating stubble-burning by farmers—instead helping meaningfully increase their incomes—and reducing our foreign exchange deficit by a third. The increase in ethanol production alone has the potential to create over 700,000 jobs when targeting the base potential only, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Study. These jobs would be distributed over several high-priority sectors which include workers with different skill levels that are required, for instance, for constructing ethanol plants.
Operating the plants will also require engineers and administrative staff while basic jobs—such as collecting the feedstock—will also get created. Biogas presents a considerably more viable and cost-effective alternative to hydrocarbon-based fuels. It can be produced indigenously while creating local level employment, and can be harvested from the mountains of urban waste or sludge that pollutes our scarce fresh water resources. Biogas can be scaled up to meet emission norms from 2020 onwards, when Bharat Stage VI will be rolled out. However, to achieve this, and to be able to compete with diesel and petrol, biofuels will need significant policy support. One of the key drivers will be the reduction of taxes on biofuel-driven vehicles. These are currently under the 28%-GST (plus 15% cess) category and have been clubbed with luxury vehicles while electric vehicles, have been bracketed in the 12% tax slab under GST. A number of countries including Sweden and Brazil have used ethanol in a big way to achieve their environment and economic objectives.
For example, in Sweden—which has a bold renewables target—companies like Scania have long pioneered biofuel-based transport solutions which are now available in India as well. Scania has worked successfully piloted biofuel buses in Nagpur. This project has demonstrated that biogas made from local waste can be used as clean fuel for transport. Biogas, or 97% clean methane, fuelling a BS VI bus is the cleanest technology available globally. I believe India can achieve its environment objectives by fast-tracking the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels. The country needs a holistic policy framework—differential taxing for vehicles using renewables, fiscal incentives to manufacturers, and supporting infrastructure like biofuel-stations—that paves the way for renewable fuels and decarbonisation. Currently, India has a regulatory framework that deals with the safety and handling of fuels like petrol, diesel and gas, but it needs to develop similar guidelines for ethanol and biodiesel. Such a shift would be immensely valuable for the economy, and provide support to India’s primary goal of inclusive growth.