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General Studies 3 >> Enivornment & Ecology

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1. Context

On September 10, on the sidelines of the annual G-20 summit in New Delhi, an India-led grouping came together to give impetus to producing and using biofuels, an alternative to fossil fuels like petroleum and diesel. The grouping called the Global Biofuels Alliance (GBA), would attempt to bring countries together to co-develop, accelerate technological advances in production processes, and advocate for biofuels, particularly in the transport sector. The three founding members, India, the U.S., and Brazil, were joined by Argentina, Canada, Italy, and South Africa, who are also G-20 member countries.

2. What are Biofuels?

Biofuels are a category of renewable fuels produced from organic materials, often derived from living organisms or their byproducts. They are considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels because they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on non-renewable energy sources. There are several types of biofuels, including:

  • Ethanol: Ethanol is a biofuel made primarily from crops like corn, sugarcane, or wheat. It can also be produced from cellulosic materials such as agricultural residues and woody biomass. Ethanol is commonly blended with gasoline to create ethanol-gasoline blends, such as E10 (10% ethanol) or E85 (85% ethanol), which are used as automotive fuels.
  • Biodiesel: Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils (e.g., soybean, canola, or palm oil) or animal fats. It can be used as a direct replacement for diesel fuel or blended with traditional diesel fuel. Biodiesel is known for its lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced air pollutants compared to conventional diesel.
  • Biogas: Biogas is produced through the anaerobic digestion of organic matter, such as sewage, agricultural waste, and food scraps. It primarily consists of methane, which can be used for electricity generation, heating, and as a vehicle fuel.
  • Hydrogen from Biomass: Biomass can also be used to produce hydrogen gas through processes like gasification or fermentation. This hydrogen can be used as a clean fuel for various applications.
  • Biojet Fuel: Biojet fuel is specifically designed for use in aviation. It is produced from renewable feedstocks and meets the stringent specifications required for jet engines. It has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel.
  • Algal Biofuels: Algae can be grown to produce oils that can be converted into biodiesel. Algal biofuels have the advantage of potentially higher yields and reduced competition for arable land compared to crop-based biofuels.
  • Advanced and Cellulosic Biofuels: These biofuels are made from non-food feedstocks, such as agricultural residues, woody biomass, and non-food crops like switchgrass. They are considered more sustainable because they don't compete with food production and can be produced using waste materials.

Biofuels are seen as a way to mitigate the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote energy security. However, their production and use can also raise concerns, such as land use competition with food crops, deforestation, and potential impacts on biodiversity. Sustainable practices and responsible land use are important considerations in the production of biofuels to ensure their long-term benefits.

3. Biofuels an alternative to fossil fuels

  • Biofuels vs. Sustainable Biofuels: Experts differentiate between biofuels and sustainable biofuels. Biofuels come from dedicated crops like sugarcane, corn, and soybean, while sustainable biofuels are derived from sources like agricultural waste, used cooking oil, and animal residues. The former is often called 1G ethanol (first-generation), and the latter is referred to as 2G (second-generation).

  • Climate Change Concerns: With the acceleration of climate change, there are growing concerns about the impact of biofuel production on food security and the environment. The cultivation of crops for biofuels can lead to increased deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and competition for arable land.

  • Land Use Pressure: More than half of the world's vegetated land is used for agriculture, putting tremendous pressure on available land resources. Agriculture is also a significant source of carbon emissions.

  • GBA Focus on 2G Ethanol: The Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) has made it clear that its primary focus is on the development of 2G ethanol. This second-generation biofuel is considered more sustainable because it utilizes sources like agricultural waste, reducing the need for additional land and potentially mitigating negative environmental impacts associated with biofuel production.

4. Renewed Focus on Biofuels
  • Global crude oil supply disruptions due to events like the Ukraine war have prompted countries to seek alternatives to reduce import dependence on petrol and diesel.
  • India, for example, imports 87% of its crude oil, leading to a significant expenditure in foreign reserves.
  • Efforts are being made to decarbonize the transport sector, which accounts for a significant portion of global carbon emissions.
  • Electric vehicle (EV) policies and legacy automakers entering the EV sector are part of these efforts.
  • Some modes of transport like aviation, shipping, and long-haul trucking face challenges in reducing carbon emissions compared to self-driven cars or motorbikes.
  • Experts suggest that 2G ethanol could be a valuable substitute in these harder-to-decarbonize sectors.

5. Role of Biofuels in the Energy Transition

  • Most biofuels are blended with petrol or diesel, with countries like India blending about 10% of biofuels and planning to increase this percentage.
  • Debates exist regarding the role of biofuels in the ongoing energy transition.
  • Some experts emphasize accelerating EV adoption and developing alternatives like green hydrogen as the primary focus.
  • Others argue that 2G ethanol can help soften the disruption by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while extending the life of internal combustion engines.
  • This extension provides time for automakers to develop robust alternatives and offers economic benefits such as increased farmer incomes and job creation.

6. Global Biofuel Alliance

  • The Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) is an initiative by India as the G20 Chair. The Alliance intends to expedite the global uptake of biofuels through facilitating technology advancements, intensifying the utilization of sustainable biofuels, and shaping robust standard setting and certification through the participation of a wide spectrum of stakeholders.
  • The alliance will also act as a central repository of knowledge and an expert hub. GBA aims to serve as a catalytic platform, fostering global collaboration for the advancement and widespread adoption of biofuels.
  • The Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) has three founding members.
  • These three countries collectively produce 85% of global biofuels and consume approximately 81% of them.

U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard Amendment:

  • The U.S. has announced amendments to its Renewable Fuel Standard to significantly increase biofuel production.
  • The goal is to replace about 140,000 barrels per day of crude oil imports by 2025.

7. India's Biofuel Initiatives:

  • India announced plans to establish 12 new refineries in 2018.
  • The aim is to achieve a 20% ethanol blending rate in fuels by 2025.
  • India's commitment to becoming net-zero by 2070 adds significance to these efforts.

Global Biofuel Demand Predictions:

  • The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that about two-thirds of global biofuel demand will originate from three emerging economies: India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
  • These countries have domestic feedstocks, production capacity, low production costs, and supportive policies to boost demand.

Decarbonization Impact:

  • The extent to which these developments will accelerate the decarbonization of the energy sector remains to be seen.
  • Increased biofuel production and adoption have the potential to reduce carbon emissions, particularly in transportation.
  • The success of these initiatives will depend on various factors, including policy implementation and market dynamics.

8. Conclusion

The GBA's founding members, along with countries like the U.S. and India, are making significant efforts to boost biofuel production and use. These initiatives have the potential to contribute to decarbonizing the energy sector, especially in emerging economies, but their success will depend on effective implementation and market factors.

For Prelims: Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA), G-20 summit, E10 (10% ethanol) or E85 (85% ethanol), Electric vehicle (EV), and International Energy Agency (IEA).

For Mains: 1. Discuss the role of biofuels in the global transition to sustainable energy sources, considering their environmental impact, economic implications, and potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (250 words).


Previous year Question

1. According to India's National Policy on Biofuels, which of the following can be used as raw materials for the production of biofuels? (UPSC 2020)

1. Cassava

2. Damaged wheat grains

3. Groundnut seeds

4. Horse gram

5. Rotten potatoes

6. Sugar beet

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

A. 1, 2, 5 and 6 only

B. 1, 3, 4 and 6 only

C. 2, 3, 4 and 5 only

D. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6

Answer: A

2. It is possible to produce algae-based biofuels, but what is/are the likely limitation(s) of developing countries in promoting this industry? (UPSC 2017)

1. Production of algae-based biofuels is possible in seas only and not on continents.

2. Setting up and engineering the algae-based biofuels production requires a high level of expertise/technology until the construction is completed.

3. Economically viable production necessitates the setting up of large-scale facilities which may raise ecological and social concerns.

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

A. 1 and 2 only

B. 2 and 3 only

C. 3 only

D. 1, 2 and 3

Answer: B

3. With reference to the Neem tree, consider the following statements: (UPSC 2014)

1. Neem oil can be used as a pesticide to control the proliferation of some species of insects and mites.

2. Neem seeds are used in the manufacture of biofuels and hospital detergents.

3. Neem oil has applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

A. 1 and 2 only

B. 3 only

C. 1 and 3 only

D. 1, 2 and 3

Answer: C

Source: The Hindu

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