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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 29 New Delhi July 9, 2016

Towards Sustainable Development and a Clean Earth

Saturday 9 July 2016

by Pranjit Agarwala

Cleanopolis Energy Systems India Private Limited is a clean technology initiative located in the middle of the lush green paddy fields of rural Sonitpur district of Assam. Promoted by local educated entrepreneurs, the small-scale biomass gasification unit, now in the pre-commissioning stage, will convert organic waste to sustainable energy and also produce organic fertiliser. The unit will involve the local populace in an integrated system of waste management that will improve the quality of life of the community at large. Besides generating rural employment directly, the unit will also boost the rural economy by providing farmers and their womenfolk with supplementary income from agro- and kitchen-waste, cattle, pig, goat dung, poultry litter, backyard bamboo groves and wetland flora. Cleanopolis aims to address two critical issues of socio-economic develop-ment in rural areas: electricity and waste disposal. It is also a sincere effort, however small, to reduce the import of heavily subsidised petro-leum products and chemical fertilisers, both of which are crippling our economy and environ-ment.

The growing degradation of the earth’s biosphere has forced the world’s economists, environmentalists, planners and policy-makers to focus on sustainable development. Since the industrial revolution the frenetic pace at which the earth’s resources have been relentlessly exploited for economic development, mainly by the industrialised nations, has severely damaged the earth’s environment and eco-system. There are now genuine fears that if the developing economies of the world also follow the same pattern of resource utilisation, there will be no resources left for future generations to explore or utilise.

In recent decades the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has taken some serious initiatives to bring down the emission of green house gases (ghg) which are primarily responsible for global warming, climate change and biodiversity loss. The Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCCC has strongly recommended the use of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM’s objective is to promote green economies in developing countries and is based on the concept of carbon emission reduction and sustainable develop-ment. Sustainable development means using the earth’s resources at a rate that is naturally regenerative.

The global economy is still dependent on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy. Ninety per cent of India’s electricity is produced from thermal and hydel sources. But the country’s power generation remains far short of the demand because the growth in the sector has been adversely affected by lagging crude oil, coal and natural gas production, rising energy import bills and increasing environmental restrictions. Burning of fossil fuels contributes 25 per cent to ghg emissions. Another 20 per cent is added by industries. But as electricity is vital for socio-economic develop-ment, particularly for developing countries like India, alternate sources of energy have to be tapped.

There are three main sources of renewable energy, namely, solar, wind and biomass. Power generation from solar and wind energy is subject to climatic conditions and the output may fluctuate according to the season or weather. Power generation from biomass is, however, much more uniform. Biomass gasification plants are ideal for processing cow dung and other crop and agro-wastes for producing clean gaseous fuels which can be used to generate electricity and produce organic fertilisers. Environmentally, the process reduces carbon emissions, helps fight climate change and reduces air pollution positively impacting the health and hygiene particularly of women and children, while the use of organic fertilisers enriches the soil and sustains productivity. Moreover the sale of agro-waste and dung give farmers an additional source of income boosting the rural economy. In many Indian States biomass gasification plants are providing a solution for off-grid decentralised power generation and playing a significant role in rural electrification.

Ironically despite such advantages States with agro-based economies have not fully utilised the potential of this form of renewable energy and the growth of biomass plants have been limited. This is because of the non-availability of sufficient quantities of agro-waste throughout the year as there is a shortage during the long pre-harvest or cultivation season. Stocking up of crop-waste is not feasible.

However, Assam with its predominantly agrarian economy, extensive wetlands filled with water hyacinths, widespread culture of animal husbandry and poultry, dotted with miles of tea gardens has good potential for such gasification plants. Significantly, bamboo can also be a substitute for crop waste and Assam with its tradition of bamboo cultivation and backyard bamboo groves in every village home has the capacity to maintain supplies of biomass throughout the year.

 Unlike China, in India there has been a concentration of CDM projects in the more industrialised States. The dearth of CDM projects in the backward States therefore implies that the Government of India is not fully capitalising on the CDM’s potential to contribute to sustainable development. Cleanopolis is a cost-effective carbon abatement project. By facili-tating investments in the Clean Development Mechanism in areas that need them the most, the Indian Government could reap the double benefit of climate mitigation and economic development.

“Remember, we do not inherit the earth from our parents, we in fact borrow it from our children.”

The author is an entrepreneur and free-lance writer based in Guwahati.