Editorial 1: Protecting floodplains is the need of the hour
- Humanity is struggling with a shortage of water as well as an excess. As the World Health Organization stated, “Floods are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation is expected to continue to increase due to climate change.”
Floods in India
- The 2013 floods in Uttarakhand, the 2014 floods in the Kashmir Valley, the 2015 floods in Chennai, and the 2017 floods in Gujarat all caused loss of lives and livelihoods and massive damage to infrastructure.
- This year too, we saw the devastating effects of rain-induced floods and landslides in several districts of Himachal Pradesh.
- The Yamuna water level crossed the 208.5 metre mark, breaking a 45-year-old record. All these disasters point to the severity of the situation and the urgent need to tackle it.
Damage by the floods
- As per the Geological Survey of India, over 40 million hectares, which is nearly 12% of the total land area of India, is prone to floods.
- The severity and frequency of floods has especially affected our cities, where there is little effort made in maintaining natural topography.
- Cities expand fast and mostly in a haphazard manner, which makes them vulnerable to disasters.
- Flooding affects the economy too — Indian cities are projected to contribute to 75% of the GDP by 2030.
- India primarily relies on the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the rules made in pursuance of the Act, to deal with flood management.
- But this law is meant to deal with multi-hazard risks and is not specifically focused on flood risk management.
- As per the Act, disasters cannot be predicted. This is not entirely correct, especially with respect to the frequency and intensity of floods.
Change in strategy
- Disaster risks across the world are found to be situated within environmental and natural resource governance.
- While the protection strategy includes technical measures such as the laying of dikes, temporary flood defence walls, and polders, the key elements of the management strategy are retention of water and restoration of floodplains.
- In India, there are large-scale encroachments on floodplains. These increase the frequency of floods and the damage caused by them.
- Illegal construction work in floodplains reduces the capacity of rivers to contain a high level of water within their banks.
- This is especially the case during heavy rainfall when water flows down from upper catchment areas.
- Thus, the tendency to occupy floodplains results in flooding. Uttarakhand has been neglecting eco-sensitive floodplains by allowing the construction of guest houses and hotels on the river front to promote tourism and boost its economy.
- Floods do not merely show the fury of nature; they are also often brought about by climate change-induced rainfall. This especially impacts mountainous regions such as the Himalayas.
- Laws in India which are meant to protect the environment are not implemented.
- While there are central policy measures to protect floodplains, they are mostly non-binding on States. No State in India has been able to prevent encroachment on floodplains.
- There are many experiences around the world which point to the potential benefits of protecting and preserving ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, lakes, and coastal areas in reducing physical exposure to natural hazards such as floods, landslides or avalanches by serving as buffers.
- Flood plain restoration and water retention of water bodies are considered to be pillars against flooding.
- Climate change adaptation is a cross-sectoral issue. It involves laws relating to land use, preservation of water bodies, coastal regulations, and environmental impact assessment.
- Thus it is complex; a multitude of laws need to be integrated into a coherent framework. The purpose will not be served if, for instance, a law to tackle climate change is passed by Parliament while changes to land use and the preservation of water bodies are not made.
- However, achieving this requires strong political will. Populist leaders tend to refrain from implementing “green” policies. This must change if we want to save lives and livelihoods and safeguard infrastructure.
Editorial 2: The complex path to biofuel sustainability
- Until a few years ago, working on biofuels called for constant justification in the face of electric vehicles (EVs) taking over the world. Today, while there is no doubt that EV adoption has amplified over the years, there is growing awareness of the fact that no decarbonisation strategy is trade-off-free.
- For instance, for a transition to EVs, existing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and the supporting infrastructure need to be replaced entirely, which is capital intensive.
- Further, the required batteries and critical minerals used in them need to be imported, adding to environmental concerns on how these minerals are mined, among other issues.
- Biofuels, on the other hand, can be used in existing ICE engines and infrastructure with little to no modifications and offer import independence.
- However, ‘biofuel’ is a blanket term that includes both sustainable and unsustainable fuels, and an understanding of their difference will be essential to drive effective decarbonisation action.
The challenges in India
- In India, biofuel is synonymous with first-generation (1G) ethanol, which is primarily sourced from food crops.
- The policy target in India of achieving 20% ethanol blending with petrol (E20) by 2025-26 is expected to be met almost entirely by 1G ethanol made from sugar cane and foodgrains.
- Second-generation (2G) ethanol, which is 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 groundwater depletion implications of growing sugar cane are well known, but the food security implications of groundwater depletion and of using foodgrains for ethanol production are harder to imagine because India is currently a surplus food producer.
Diverting surplus towards energy
- There are several reasons why diverting the surplus produce towards energy or specifically growing a crop for energy may not be a sustainable strategy.
- First, India’s crop yields have already stagnated, and global warming is expected to reduce yields, which means that the same area under cultivation (arable land) will produce less with time but will need to suffice for a growing population.
- Second, a recent study projected that the rates of groundwater depletion could triple during 2040-81 compared with the current rate. This is again attributable to temperature rise and the resultant increase in crop water requirements. With such limited resources, be it groundwater or arable land, food production should be prioritised over fuel.
- Third, 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’ biofuels are produced from crop residues and other wastes, with low water and GHG footprint.
- The Global Biofuels Alliance that was formed at the G-20 Summit in New Delhi last week is expected to strengthen the development of sustainable biofuels, in addition to promoting ethanol uptake.
- It is, therefore, a historic moment for India, demonstrating its commitment to climate action with global cooperation.
Sustainable biomass use
- The Energy Transitions Commission, in its report recommended that biomass should be prioritised for use in sectors where there are limited low-carbon alternatives.
- Long-haul aviation and road freight segments, wherein complete electrification might take longer to achieve, could make the cut, whereas petrol vehicles would probably not.
- According to the International Energy Agency, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 globally, sustainable biofuel production needs to triple by 2030 to fuel modes that have few other mitigation options.
- Although 1G ethanol is unlikely to fit the bill, 2G ethanol could be counted as a sustainable fuel, especially if the production is decentralised, i.e., crop residues do not have to be transported large distances to a central manufacturing plant.
- Balancing economies of scale with the energy needs (and costs) of biomass collection and transport across large distances is a major challenge.
- The Global Biofuels Alliance could help drive innovation and technology development in establishing an efficient biomass supply chain and smaller-scale decentralised biofuel production units.