The continued use of fossil fuels for addressing the world’s energy needs is leading to rapid depletion of natural resources and a simultaneous increase in environmental pollution. Biofuels are viewed as one of the solutions to this dual problem. The best part is that biofuels can be manufactured from what is generally considered as agricultural “waste”.

Using biotechnology and bio solutions, it is possible to improve agricultural produce as well as the conversion of agro-residue to biofuels. The March 2021 Report of the World Biogas Association estimates that around 105 billion tonnes of organic waste is generated every year, which can be used to produce biofuels, thus driving progress towards a low-carbon energy transition.

The transportation sector accounts for 25 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the number of passenger cars worldwide is expected to double in the next 20 years, with developing economies driving this growth. Worryingly, many of the cities in developing countries are already ranked among the most polluted in the world. There is thus a clear need to decarbonise transportation. Using biofuels in place of conventional fuels is one of the ways of doing this.

Sugarcane ethanol has one of the smallest carbon footprints among biofuels. It is clean and affordable and, when blended with petrol, can reduce GHG emissions by up to 90 per cent. Ethanol blending also significantly reduces emissions of particulate pollutants and noxious gases. Through its ethanol programme, São Paulo, the largest Brazilian city, witnessed a 50 per cent reduction in particulate emissions despite nearly doubling its car fleet.

Today, air pollution in São Paulo is well the below the acceptable levels defined by the World Health Organization. Further, ethanol has reduced Brazil’s dependence on imported oil and substituted almost 50 per cent of petrol with ethanol, saving around $180 billion worth of fossil fuel imports in the past 20 years.

India launched the Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) scheme in 2003. With concerted efforts by the government over the past seven years, the production of fuel-grade ethanol touched three billion litres in Ethanol Supply Year 2020-21.

The targets for ethanol blending have now been set at 10 per cent for 2022 and 20 per cent for 2025.

To guide efforts in this direction, the NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas released the “Roadmap for Ethanol Blending in India, 2020-25” in June 2021. It is expected that a successful E20 (20 per cent ethanol blend) programme could save $4 billion per annum for India.

Based on forecasts for the growth of vehicular population and the penetration of electric vehicles in India, the ethanol demand for petrol blending is estimated to be in the range of 7.22 to 9.21 billion litres in 2025. However, policy recommendations have been framed for an expected demand of 10.16 billion litres, to ensure that the E20 goal is met by 2025.

India’s production capacity of 6.84 billion litres of ethanol, which is derived largely from molasses and grain-based distilleries, is proposed to be more than doubled.

Using biofuels for sustainable mobility can help in addressing three of the biggest challenges of the 21st century — climate change, air pollution in large cities, and high dependence on imported oil. To accelerate progress on this front, there is a need to explore opportunities for collaboration between BRICS nations as well as with other developing economies.

Key areas for cooperation

Ethanol is a low-hanging fruit for sustainable development as it also opens possibilities for producing bioelectricity, biogas, biomethane, and bio-fertilisers. At a household level, bioethanol can facilitate clean cooking. At the industry level, ethanol fuel cells can complement hydrogen fuel cells.

Brazil and India, along with other BRICS nations, can collaborate with each other to usher in a sustainable energy transition while achieving decarbonisation, social development and environment protection — all in line with the agreed mandate of BRICS Business Council.

As agriculture is the backbone of emerging and developing economies, they stand to benefit from knowledge-sharing on practices for effective agricultural management. The automobile industry, meanwhile, will benefit through cooperation to develop flex-fuel vehicles, flex-fuel hybrid electric vehicles, and ethanol fuel cell vehicles.

The effectiveness of the latter can be gauged from the fact that, since the time that flex vehicle technology was introduced in Brazil in 2003, ethanol use has prevented the emission of 556 million tonnes of CO2eq, which is comparable to planting four billion trees over 20 years.

International cooperation in this area should also extend to industrial processing, particularly for second-generation ethanol, to ramp up commercial-scale plants. Knowledge exchange should also encompass public policies, sustainable practices, and the lessons learned so far.

By strengthening trade and investments in the business and infrastructure of biofuel production, we can build greater momentum towards our respective climate commitments and the transition to carbon-neutral economies.

Sousa is Executive Director, UNICA (Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association), and Krishan is Chairman CVC India Infrastructure Pvt Ltd