When the news broke that the
Nobel Prize for peace had been won by Al Gore I, along with a large part of the
world, heaved a sigh of contentment. For once something right, something good,
had happened in this strife and turmoil-laden world.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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..
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
author''s articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)