In the midst of soaring fuel prices and growing concerns over the environment, India has given a big push for the ethanol blended petrol programme (EBP), designed to reduce the country’s fossil fuel dependence and also lessen the burden of crude oil import bill. Ethanol is a biofuel made from molasses, grains and farm waste. Mixing it in auto fuel can result in savings and also protect against climate change. Recently, the Centre had set an ambitious target of raising the share of ethanol in petrol from the current average of 8.5% to 20% by 2025, five years earlier than the original target. While ethanol blending is an important component of the energy strategy, the government must tread cautiously because the increased target for ethanol blending could incentivise water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rice, thereby adversely impacting crop diversity. Hence, it is important to strike the right balance between the two needs. While working towards cutting down fossil fuel consumption, it is equally important to explore ways to reduce the EBP programme’s dependence on the sugarcane route. India’s expanding sugarcane acreage is a big contributor to its acute water stress and poor crop diversification. There are other alternative feedstock, such as agricultural waste and recycled cooking oil, which present more environmentally friendly ways to produce biofuel. The policy can focus on raising the non-cane contribution to the ethanol mix by incentivising both public and private players to set up second-generation ethanol facilities.
At present, India is dependent on imports for meeting 83% of its oil needs. Blending petrol with ethanol will cut down the import requirement. Also, ethanol being less polluting fuel, it will reduce carbon emissions. In order to achieve 20% blending by 2025, nearly 1,000 crore litres of ethanol will be needed. Given the constraints of finite sources of fuel, frequent fluctuations in prices and their overall impact on the environment, alternatives like ethanol in fuel are being explored by many countries. However, in a country like India, where water shortage is acute in several regions, the policy needs to be implemented with caution. Currently, ethanol is made largely from sugarcane. Raising the level of ethanol in petrol would reduce polluting emissions, but it would also increase the acreage under sugarcane for ethanol production. This could potentially put pressure on other food crops and their prices and also has ramifications for the environment. There is high usage of water in ethanol production, including the rainwater used by sugarcane plants as well as the water used to wash away pollutants. This could considerably deplete the country’s water resources.
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