A prize well deserved
20 Oct 2007
The prize has not gone to some politician who, after a lifetime of making and covering up mistakes had managed to set one, or a few of them, right. It has gone to a man who has embarked upon a crusade not to spread democracy or stamp out poverty but, literally, to save humanity from destroying itself; to this task he has brought every bit of knowledge and every political and oratorical skill that he possesses.
He has taken full advantage of his awesome network of contacts and has milked the international public''s sympathy for the way in which he had the Presidency of the United States stolen from him seven years ago. In short he has used every trick of the politician''s trade to serve a truly selfless cause.
Timing is crucial to the success of any idea. Gore wrote his first book on global warming Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit in the early nineties, a short while after scientists like James Hansen had begun to warn the world of the threat that the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere posed to human existence.
They were shouted down by the industry lobby, which deployed a succession of pseudo-scientists, not to mention mega-best selling American authors like Michael Crichton, to tell the world that the evidence was inconclusive and that the capacity of Planet Earth to absorb changes wrought by man was far greater than the fear mongers were prepared to admit.
The world was sufficiently confused to withhold judgement till about a decade ago, when quite suddenly, and it seemed systematically, the world''s weather went haywire. Storms of unprecedented ferocity swept Britain and Western Europe year after year, uprooting trees that had stood for two hundred years; these were punctuated by heat waves of a severity that killed thousands of older people in an unprepared Europe.
The Caribbean began to generate hurricanes that were more powerful and more frequent than any in its past records. The frozen Arctic Ocean melted, the Antarctic ice cap shrank and glaciers, upon whose waters most of humanity depends for its very existence, began to shrink at an alarming rate.
Suddenly the world found itself faced with an eve more terrifying possibility: that global warming had crossed a ''tipping point'' and was setting off a chain reaction of self reinforcing destruction. This was the moment when, at the beginning of 2006 Gore released his and Davis Guggenheim''s film, An Inconvenient Truth.
In the film Gore demonstrated, with photographs, movies, graphs and ice-core samples that the world is now far, far hotter, than it has been in the last 650,000 years and continues, relentlessly to get still hotter. He also pointed out the ten out of the last 14 years were the hottest years the world had experienced since 1880..
The Nobel committee wisely decided to award the prize jointly to Mr. Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC has, for more than two decades, painstakingly marshalled the research results that have made the case for controlling climate change so impregnable. The current chairman of the IPCC is none other than the head of the Tata Energy Research Institute R K Pachaury. Many Indians have therefore taken a justifiable pride in his inclusion, albeit indirectly, in the award of the prize.
For India, this could prove a mixed blessing, for we in India are so hungry for foreign recognition that , that we run the risk of sinking into complacency when we receive it. That may be why all of our programmes for the replacement of fossil with bio-fuels are uncritical adaptations of initiatives being taken in the West.
The West''s dependence on oil is too great for it to aim realistically at replacing more than a small part of it in the medium term future. So we too have aimed , in our energy plan for 2030, to replace only 25 per cent of our fossil-based transport fuels with bio-fuels. We seem to have forgotten that the West''s oil consumption is almost static while ours is growing at seven percent a year. So a twenty-five percent replacement will still leave us having to treble our import of non-existent oil.
Second, the west is going ga-ga over ethanol, so the Indian government is doing so too. Once again , it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that what is sauce for the goose may not necessarily be sauce for the gander. Farmers in the US have doubled their acreage under corn and soya to feed the booming ethanol industry because they have fallow land to spare. Three hundred new ethanol plants have come up in the past three years and a glut is developing..
Brazil is placing all of its bets on ethanol because by switching from sugar to ethanol or vice versa it can stabilise prices of both and maximise the returns to farmers. In India , where every inch of land is fought over, it would be unrealistic for the government to expect more than a token shift to ethanol producing crops. But that seems to be all that the government is aiming for.
India cannot replace even today''s transport fuel needs with ethanol. The alternative, bio-diesel from the Jatropha plant, is a decade or more away from becoming commercially viable. But India has no need of either. For it has a billion tonnes of agri-wastes that it can turn into methanol, a superior transport fuel to ethanol that has been used by racing cars for decades, and requires only the use of non-corrosive fuel tanks and pipes in existing cars.
The technology for producing methanol has been tested in Germany and Sweden with wood waste, bagasse, black liquor ( a poisonous waste product of the paper industry that our paper plants simply dump into rivers ) and a host of other biomass sources in semi- commercial plants for a decade and more.
These tests have uniformly shown that methanol equivalent to a litre of gasoline can be produced for 35 to 39 cents a litre and that the payback period on such plants is only four years! Some years ago the OECD produced a 280-page report on methanol from biomass, and confirmed the viability of the process with different designs of gasifiers.
In India the collateral benefits of switching to methanol will dwarf even its direct benefits to the investors. There are around 450 sugar mills that burn bagasse as fuel, because it has no other use. With fiscal incentives for technology upgradation and modification they can be induced to set up oxygen blown gasification plants alongside, and turn each tonne of bagasse into 1.4 to 1.6 tonnes of methanol. At Rs20 per kg, ex factory, the 100kg of sugar produced from a tonne of sugar cane fetches approximately Rs2,000. But the 600kg of air-dried bagasse that remains can be converted into 1100 litres of methanol (equivalent to 800 litres of gasoline). This will fetch 30,000 rupees at today''s ex-refinery prices . By raising the cane price a good part of this additional income can be made to go to the farmers will go to the farmers.
The returns on black liquor are even higher and there are more than 200 operating paper mills, which can be modified to convert it to methanol.
In sum India already has between 400 and 500 entrepreneurial nodes for the production of methanol. The economic profitability of the process has been proven over a decade in Europe. With the right package of incentives India switch to a carbon-neutral transport economy within a decade. But to do this we must resist the temptation to bask in the glory reflected from Mr Pachaury and think that nothing more needs to be done.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
(The author''s articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)