The complex path to biofuel sustainability – Biofuels and Decarbonisation: Challenges and Opportunities in India | 14 September 2023 | UPSC Daily Editorial Analysis

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What's the article about?

  • It talks about the trade-offs between electric vehicles (EVs) and biofuels in the context of decarbonization.


  • GS3: Infrastructure: Energy; Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment


  • The article discusses the trade-offs between electric vehicles (EVs) and biofuels in the context of decarbonization.
  • While EVs require the replacement of existing infrastructure and batteries, biofuels can be used in existing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and infrastructure.
  • However, the term 'biofuel' includes both sustainable and unsustainable fuels, and an understanding of the difference is crucial for effective decarbonization action.
  • The article then focuses on the challenges of biofuel adoption in India, where biofuel is synonymous with first-generation (1G) ethanol sourced from food crops.


  • Challenges in India:
    • India has a biofuel policy, which aims to achieve 20% ethanol blending with petrol (E20) by 2025-26.
    • However, the policy is expected to be met almost entirely by first-generation (1G) ethanol made from food crops, primarily sugar cane and foodgrains.
    • Second-generation (2G) ethanol, made from crop wastes and residues, is unlikely to contribute much to achieving this target due to several challenges related to feedstock supply chain and scaling up.
    • The following challenges are there in production of biofuels:
      • Implications of groundwater depletion on growing sugar cane. A recent study led by the University of Michigan projected that the rates of groundwater depletion could triple during 2040-81 compared with the current rate.
      • India’s crop yields have already stagnated, and global warming is expected to reduce yields.
      • The agriculture sector is one of the hardest-to-abate in terms of direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. So, increasing GHG emissions from this sector for motor fuel production in order to decrease GHG emissions from the transport sector is an unnecessary balancing loop that would achieve little net benefit.
  • Sustainable Biomass Use:
    • ‘Sustainable’ biofuels are produced from crop residues and other wastes, with low water and GHG footprint.
    • Biomass should be prioritized for use in sectors where there are limited low-carbon alternatives, such as long-haul aviation and road freight segments.
    • The International Energy Agency suggests that sustainable biofuel production needs to triple by 2030 to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 globally.
    • The 2G ethanol could be counted as a sustainable fuel, especially if the production is decentralized, i.e., crop residues do not have to be transported large distances to a central manufacturing plant.
    • However, balancing economies of scale with the energy needs (and costs) of biomass collection and transport across large distances is a major challenge.

Way Forward:

  • Achieving true sustainability is complex, especially with respect to biofuels. Therefore, any strategy should be carefully examined in the context of the larger ecosystem to avoid unintended negative consequences.
  • The Global Biofuels Alliance, formed at the G-20 Summit in New Delhi, is expected to strengthen the development of sustainable biofuels and promote ethanol uptake. This demonstrates India's commitment to climate action with global cooperation.

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