Climate Change Interventions to
Promote Biomass Energy in India

Debyani Ghosh       

In developing countries like India, people living in rural areas (and even the urban poor) continue to rely heavily on biomass in the form of fuel wood, crop residues and dung for meeting a substantial portion of their energy requirements. Traditionally, biomass-energy use dominates the rural energy consumption in Indian villages. Collection and use of biomass involves arduous human labour (especially for women and children) for extraction and transportation, fuel-burning in low efficiency devices, and high human drudgery associated with cooking under unhealthy and unsafe conditions in the household. A large population residing in rural areas and the urban poor are likely to continue their heavy reliance on biomass in the near future as economic and social factors are likely to restrict a large-scale shift to alternate energy sources. But, there is an urgent need to alter the usage patterns of biomass-energy to provide clean and efficient energy services.

National programmes to promote biomass-energy use and disseminate biomass-energy technologies have existed in India for almost two decades. Despite several programmes on biomass-energy, their rate of spread has been slow. Numerous technical, economic, marketing, institutional and social barriers have prevented alterations in biomass consumption patterns. Hence, it continues to be used in a conventional, inefficient and unsustainable manner.

Opportunities to alter these consumption patterns, increase deployment of advanced technologies, and promote bioenergy use in a sustainable manner to provide better energy services assume relevance in the context of climate change mitigation. For the climate treaty to succeed, it is necessary to ensure participation of developing countries like India. Parties to the Climate Convention have agreed to implement mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that can reap potential benefits to developing countries by the sale of emission reductions and from technology transfer, while allowing industrialized countries to take advantage of the low cost emission reduction opportunities available in developing countries.

Biomass energy is an extremely important bridge in this debate. Promotion of biomass energy has the potential to realize a number of win-win opportunities for the global and local communities. Global benefits accrue in the form of reducing the build-up of Green House Gases (GHG)s in the atmosphere and carbon sequestration by standing stocks of biomass. Local benefits are in the form of promotion of local resources and employment opportunities; substantial health benefits by altering usage patterns of biomass; prevention of land degradation by biomass plantations and ecosystem services such as control of soil erosion; sustaining the hydrological cycle and providing habitat for wildlife.

In this context, it would be worthwhile to study linkages between climate change interventions directed towards reducing GHG emissions and biomass usage to meet energy requirements in rural households, and whether the climate change interventions could be leveraged to alter usage patterns of biomass. This would need to address a variety of technical, economic, institutional, financial, marketing and social barriers that have prevented innovations in biomass-energy technologies and restricted providing better energy services to the rural population. Biomass programmes in India, oriented towards meeting energy requirements of rural households, have encountered a number of barriers.

A study of these programmes reveals the complexity of issues that need to be addressed in formulating intervention strategies and designing effective measures for providing better rural energy services. It remains a challenge as to how effective instruments could be designed to address the different barriers. Intervention measures will also need to address biomass supply issues to ensure sustainability of providing the energy services. In this context, one needs to explore mechanisms by which energy consumption patterns could be altered as strategies to promote equitable and sustainable development as well as mitigate climate change. While designing mechanisms and instruments to alter biomass consumption patterns, there is a need to address some of the characteristics of bio-energy projects such as high transaction costs (due to their small and dispersed nature); lack of appropriate cost buy-down mechanisms of demonstrated technologies along the learning curve ( by increasing their cumulative production and by market aggregation); and lack of market infrastructure to set up financing mechanisms, distribution companies and maintenance support.

Intervention opportunities

Cookstoves burning biomass, under low thermal efficiency, produce substantial GHG emissions and a number of health damaging pollutants in the form of products of incomplete combustion (PIC). Studies show that burning of household solid fuels in India causes about 500,000 premature deaths a year of women and children under five. Even in densely located households with chimneys, release of PIC can cause significant outdoor pollution, termed as ‘Neighbourhood Pollution’. GHG emissions from cookstoves are caused by a large amount of fuel carbon being diverted into gaseous PIC that cause greater global warming per carbon atom than would be the case if complete combustion occurred and all the carbon was released as carbon dioxide.

A kilogram of wood, having 454 grams of carbon, burnt in a typical biomass cookstove in India produces the following: Carbon dioxide-403 grams; and other GHGs like (numbers in brackets indicate the quantity in terms of CO2 equivalents)- Methane (86 grams), Carbon monoxide (131 grams), Hydrocarbons (69 grams) and Nitrous Oxide (4.7 grams) (Smith et al, 2000). This release of significant amounts of non-CO2 greenhouse gases from incomplete burning of solid fuels results in larger Global Warming Commitment1 (GWC) per meal than fossil fuels, kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas. Figure 1 compares GHG emissions from different household fuels used for cooking in India. Thus, biomass fuel cycles are often not GHG neutral, even if the biomass is harvested renewably.

Traditionally, biomass fuel usage produces more GHG per unit of energy service delivered as compared to kerosene or LPG. Biogas, being a gas based on a renewable fuel, has the lowest GWC emitted at the stove per meal. The GHG emission per meal using biogas stoves is only about ten percent of that for LPG and a factor of 80 less than the average stove that burns dung directly. A correct comparison across stove/fuel combinations needs to estimate emissions over the entire fuel cycle. For example, there are methane leakages from biogas digesters. On the other hand, not using dung may result in its anaerobic decomposition in agricultural areas with significant GWC in the form of methane. But, the comparison clearly establishes the scope for using processed biomass fuels such as biogas and other upgraded fuels like producer gas and alcohol (produced from biomass feedstock) that reduce both GWC per meal and emissions of health-damaging pollutants. They provide win-win opportunities to achieve substantial global and local benefits in the form of cost-effective GHG emission reductions and providing better energy services to the poor in the form of a cleaner, more efficient and convenient fuel.

Therefore, development of improved cookstoves needs to focus not only on saving fuel and reducing IAP, but also on achieving lower GWC. Intervention measures to alter cooking energy consumption patterns can encourage expanded dissemination of biogas digesters to substitute the direct use of dung for cooking2, and focus development of improved stoves that save fuel, reduce indoor air pollution and achieve lower global warming commitment. This will require, among other things, bridging the cost gap between advanced stoves in developed countries and those required in developing countries; development of capabilities for advanced stove design and upgradation of local skills. The setting up of biogas digesters will not only alleviate the conditions under which cooking is done, but can provide a package of integrated rural energy services with multiple benefits. Electricity generated from biogas can meet lighting, drinking water, and irrigation pumping requirements. Other benefits are improved sanitation and use of sludge as a fertilizer. Interventions to infuse international resources can provide the added push to advance household energy systems and modernize bioenergy applications, along with vigorous domestic efforts.

Provision for Bioenergy projects under CDM

Bioenergy projects under climate change that are oriented towards altering energy consumption patterns in rural households are likely to be categorized as small projects. This categorization offers advantages such as streamlined implementation of projects and allows them to choose a standardized baseline, based on a regional average or a particular technological package.

Studies have proposed methods to enhance competitiveness of small projects under CDM. These methods include automatic additionality, formulation of a standardized baseline, project bundling, easier credit calculation methods and expedited project registration. Streamlining such projects is a contentious issue. Other difficulties are a priori determination of rules as to where and to whom local benefits are channeled. Thus, effects of biomass-based projects, whether for energy production, carbon-sequestration, or a combination of mitigation measures and alternate uses, can be extremely complex. Decision-making is time-consuming and contentious and leads to prohibitively high transaction costs. This can endanger the viability of all but the simplest CDM projects.

Efforts are on to develop fast-track evaluation measures for small projects. Equity issues are important in bio-energy related CDM projects so that development is not made secondary to carbon mitigation/sequestration. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that industrialized nations are committed to invest in bio-energy projects in host countries that enhance local capacity building and knowledge creation and help in the development of a domestic market.   q

The author is a research fellow with the
Energy Technology Innovation Project
at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, U.S.



Smith, K., R. Uma, et al. (2000). "Greenhouse Implications of Household Stoves: An Analysis for India." Annual Review of Energy and Environment 25:741-763



1 Global Warming Commitment (GWC) is defined as: GWC= €i GHGi*GWPi

- GHGi is the quantity of ith GHG in question, and

- GWPi is the global warming potential of that particular GHGi (total warming per molecule compared with CO2).

2 Studies by Smith et al (2000) conclude that substitution of 53.5 million tons annually used in Indian households with biogas would lead to annual savings of 20 MT of carbon as CO2 -equivalent, or about 10% of the total GWC (CO2 and CH4 ) from fossil fuels consumption in India in the early 1990s.

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