The Covid-19 pandemic is a war that’s being fought on many fronts – medical, economic, political, industrial, personal, and environmental. The environmental one is just as important as the others but hasn’t been acknowledged quite as widely. A recent study in the US, however, has revealed that an increase of just 1 g of PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 m) per cubic meter of air is associated with an eight percent increase in Covid-19 mortality. The greater the exposure to PM2.5, the greater the mortality. This correlation is further validated by the findings of a study in Germany, which indicated that areas with consistently high levels of atmospheric pollutants – particularly nitrogen dioxide – have registered significantly more Covid-19 deaths than others.
Air pollution is known to trigger cardiovascular diseases, lung and respiratory diseases, diabetes, and a host of other diseases that make humans more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Covid-19 is the latest and sharpest reminder to mankind to stop hurting the environment any more than we already have. We have long known that the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles is one of the major causes of atmospheric pollution. What have we done about it, though? And, more importantly, what can we do about it now?
The use of biofuels made from renewable materials is one of the more viable solutions that present themselves. The oxygen in the molecules of a biofuel like sugarcane ethanol makes internal combustion highly efficient and reduces the formation of particulates by more than 90 percent as compared to conventional fuels. Brazil, the world’s second-largest producer of ethanol, is proof of its efficacy. Over the past four decades, the use of pure or higher blends of sugarcane ethanol in gasoline for light fleet has dramatically improved air quality in the country. Even before Covid-19 struck, Brazil had already launched RenovaBio, a program that promotes the decarbonization of the transport matrix via biofuels to achieve the NDCs in the Paris Agreement.
The Covid-19-induced economic crisis might tempt policymakers to price energy sources for their energy content, in the hope of quick recovery. Doing so will be a big mistake; it will only open the door for future disasters.
Biofuels deserve to have a place in current and future discussions on sustainable mobility. Ethanol-blended petrol greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Vehicles can easily run with 15-20 percent ethanol-blended fuel with no modifications to the engine. What’s more, widespread adoption of ethanol can also reduce oil import dependence! Adopting ethanol is fairly easy. Fuel pumps and distribution are already in place. Investments will only be needed for setting up distilleries attached to sugar mills, and for blending.
India, like Brazil, can become one of the largest ethanol producers in the world if it diverts a part of its sugarcane crop for this purpose. India has set itself an ethanol blending target of 10 percent by 2022 and 20 percent by 2030. It can get there with robust policies for pricing, procurement, and blending.
We simply cannot afford to price ethanol and gasoline on par. Their values, especially if we consider their future importance, are very, very different. The Covid-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to appreciate this fact and get our act together.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.