Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with the leaders of Singapore, Bangladesh, Italy, the US, Brazil, Argentina, Mauritius and the UAE, launched the Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) on September 9 on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi.

The GBA intends to expedite the global uptake of biofuels through facilitating technology advancements, intensifying utilisation of sustainable biofuels, shaping robust standard setting and certification through the participation of a wide spectrum of stakeholders, the official statement said.

Essentially it brought together biofuel producers and consumers with the intent to strengthen global biofuels trade for a greener sustainable future. GBA members constitute major producers and consumers of biofuels, such as the US (52 per cent), Brazil (30 per cent) and India (3 per cent), contributing about 85 per cent share in production and about 81 per cent in consumption of ethanol.

Nineteen countries and 12 international organisations have already agreed to join or support the GBA. Yes, there are merits to having an alliance, but the devil is in the details.

Interestingly, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are not part of the GBA. Is it because these two are major fossil fuel producers and biofuel doesn’t fit into their scheme of things?

According to Vandana Hari, Founder and CEO of Vanda Insights, it’s “hard to say why Saudi and Russia did not join the biofuels alliance. Maybe it is not a natural fit with their resources. For India, it makes sense because of the sugarcane production.”

“But overall, a lot of bright and bold plans get made at such high-profile events. But always, the devil is in the details. The official announcement of the GBA has a lot of lofty ideas, but it will involve a lot of hard work in crafting the detailed structure of cooperation and collaboration,” she said, adding: “Agreeing upon common standards and certification processes is a good idea, as is forming a central repository of research and knowledge. These could be the low-hanging fruits to get started with.”

Says Gaurav Kedia, Chairman, Indian Biogas Association: “They (Saudi Arabia and Russia) are major oil producers. Biofuels are a renewable source of energy that can be used to power vehicles and generate electricity. They can also help to reduce our (India’s) reliance on fossil fuels. As major oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia may be concerned that the alliance could promote biofuels as a competitor to oil.”

With GBA in place, it will now depend on the signatories to make it a success.

Talmiz Ahmad, former Ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia, who had also spent some time in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas during his career, puts it thus: “When you have major event many agreements are signed. These include agreements on topics on which some of the signatories are not fully committed.”

“Biofuel as an energy source has been very controversial. It works as a viable energy source only where you have a significant agricultural surplus. In India, we do not have such a surplus. And, we cannot divert arable land to produce the agricultural products that biofuel needs,” he said.

He clarified that India has been using biofuel, though not as a major energy source. “Cow dung is used as fuel in rural households as a non-commercial energy source.”

Recalling the effort to use jatropha to generate bio-energy about two decades ago, he noted that it had been heralded as a game changer on the energy landscape in India. But nothing came of that initiative as we don’t even have enough scrub land to grow jatropha across the country. More recently, small units have been set up that use agriculture and animal waste to generate electricity. We should not look at biofuel as something which will change our energy landscape in the near future,” he said.

Not an option for now

“For India and China, I don’t think biofuel as a major energy source is an option for now. For the US, it makes sense as it is a major agriculture producer and also has Brazil and Argentina as suppliers of bio-products.”

The application of green transition globally has to be divided into two parts — one for developed countries and the other for developing countries, he said. He pointed out that “carbon emission control targets today are non-mandatory. Each country has set its own target and, with policy changes, the application is quite flexible. One has to remember that energy policies of all countries are determined by local economics. Yes, there is genuine threat relating to climate change but there is no way that carbon mitigation policies can be effectively implemented, particularly in polarised political situations in several developed countries. Funding green transition is an expensive proposition that most politicians, often facing tough elections, will not be able to promote successfully” and that “electorates in most countries will not accept the high costs that green transition involves.”

For instance, he noted, “India and China are major producers of coal as well as major consumers; they will not give up on using this resource any time soon despite its harmful impact on the environment.” Ahmad said that “green transition will happen but at a slower pace than suggested by the targets announced so far.”

“What everyone wants is business as usual. At the end of the day, what all countries are seeking is energy security — a dignified life for all citizens and access to energy for economic development. But this is all about affordability, isn’t it? It will be difficult for countries to prioritise green transition given the high costs this will entail. Green transition will require several trillion dollars globally. Who will compensate the developing countries if they were to divert precious national resources to support transition?”

On being asked whether on energy-related matters bilateral engagements are more effective that discussions at multilateral fora, Ahmad said that energy diplomacy needs both multilateral as well as bilateral engagements. These interactions complement each other.

The world is talking about green hydrogen. But this technology, Ahmad says, is still at a nascent stage and we have a long way to go.

As the debate continues on the success of such alliances, for India the most viable option is to keep expanding it energy resources basket, so that it has a ‘bouquet’ of all to ensure energy security.