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It's a Nobel thought

The Nobel Prize for peace for Al Gore seems justified as the prize has gone to someone who worked to save humanity from destroying itself, writes PS Jha.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2007 23:31 IST

When the news broke that the Nobel Prize for peace had been won by Al Gore, I heaved a sigh of contentment. For once, something right had happened in this turmoil-laden world. The prize has not gone to a 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 network of contacts and has milked global sympathy for the way in which he had the US presidency 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 1990s. This was 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 bestselling authors like Michael Crichton, to tell the world that the evidence was inconclusive and that earth's capacity to absorb changes wrought by man was far greater than the fear-mongers were prepared to admit.

The world was sufficiently confused to withhold judgment until about a decade ago, when quite suddenly the world's weather went haywire. Storms of unprecedented ferocity swept Britain and Western Europe, uprooting trees that had stood for 200 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 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 a more terrifying possibility: that global warming had crossed a 'tipping point' and was setting off a chain reaction of self-reinforcing destruction. At this point, in 2006, Gore released his and Davis Guggenheim's film, An Inconvenient Truth. He demonstrated, with photographs, movie clips, graphs and ice-core samples, that the world is now far, far hotter than in the last 650,000 years and continues, relentlessly, to get hotter. He also pointed out that 10 out of the last 14 years were the hottest the world had experienced since 1880.

The Nobel Committee wisely decided to award the prize jointly to Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has, for over two decades, painstakingly marshalled the research results that have made the case for controlling climate change so impregnable. The current IPCC chairman is the head of Tata Energy Research Institute, RK Pachauri. 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. We are so hungry for foreign recognition that we run the risk of sinking into complacency when we receive it. This may be why all 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 7 per cent a year. So a 25 per cent replacement will still require us 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 since they have fallow land to spare. Three hundred new ethanol plants have come up in the last three years and a glut is developing.

Brazil is placing its bets on ethanol since, by switching from sugar to ethanol or vice versa, it can stabilise prices of both and maximise 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 it's 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 have 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 investors. There are around 450 sugar mills that burn bagasse as fuel. 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 Rs 20 per kg, the 100 kg of sugar produced from a tonne of sugarcane fetches approximately Rs 2,000. The 600 kg of air-dried bagasse that remains can be converted into 1,100 litres of methanol (equivalent to 800 litres of gasoline).

This will fetch Rs 30,000 at today's ex-refinery prices. By raising the cane price, a good part of this income can go to farmers. The returns on black liquor are even higher and there are more than 200 operating paper mills that can be modified to convert it to methanol.

In sum, India already has between 400 and 500 entrepreneurial nodes for the production of methanol. Its economic profitability has been proven over a decade in Europe. With the right package of incentives, India can 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 Pachauri and do nothing more.