In India, biomass—the fallen leaves in your garden, crop residue at your farm, organic garbage, and waste from your house—are just shy of around one third
of the available primary energy, mostly in rural areas, where agricultural residue is generated. Some of it is collected and stored for later use.
Burning biomass in a cook stove is the least efficient way of using it because 80 percent
of the heat generated is wasted and it adds to carbon emissions. If all 270 million tons of surplus
biomass (MNRE estimate) is collected and processed into compressed biogas, there would be a 3X gain in the volume of useful energy extracted, plus carbon emissions and air pollutants would decrease significantly since less hydrocarbons and coal would be used.
Burning biomass in a cook stove is the least efficient way of using it because 80 percent of the heat generated is wasted and it adds to carbon emissions.
Climate change demands near-term solutions to avert us from reaching the “tipping point” beyond which the chain reaction of natural forces will make desperate adaptation the only, albeit limited, option for survival. The sad part is that options exist, but they are underutilised.
Putting a value on trash
One reason why we are unable to enhance the efficiency with which biomass is used is that we continue to view it in terms of its disposal cost and not a benefit. If services were available where a trash collector pays for biomass generated in a private garden or domestic garbage, households would use the services willingly.
The contractor would collect, sort, and transport it to the nearest managed compost heap or biogas plant where it would be processed and then bottled or piped and sold to commercial vehicles or piped back and sold to you. No one would complain. This would achieve sustainable material circularity—a virtuous closed loop of energy flow—with minimum energy loss and greatly reduced carbon emissions. The key is to price out a public nuisance by making trash valuable and extracting the price paid for it from consumers once it is offered packaged as a public good like compressed biogas.
Lessons from Indore
This is already happening in cities like Indore—billed as the cleanest city in India—with the city government absorbing the entire cost of the operation from collection to production and delivery of compressed biogas. Is this venture profitable? Not financially, because the biogas produced has to compete with relatively carbon-heavy but subsidised cooking fuels like LPG, PNG, and transport fuels like compressed natural gas. Pricing cooking and transport gas higher, to account for the carbon embedded in it, and adding an import premium can make biogas financially viable.
The key is to price out a public nuisance by making trash valuable and extracting the price paid for it from consumers once it is offered packaged as a public good like compressed biogas.
Empowering the poor with cash is better than spoon-feeding
For ensuring that the poor—the bottom quarter of the income distribution—do not get locked out of clean cooking gas, compensate them by installing pre-paid gas meters into which the subsidy can be directly credited. Instead, by artificially lowering the supply price of specified merit goods—cooking gas, electricity, water, and public transport—we distort the market for competing public goods to emerge—not something a “start-up” nation should be doing.
Draw a bright red line at socialising private costs and privatising social costs
This brings us to the vexed question of budgeting for social costs and taxing private benefits. Farmers in North India burn their rice stubble to plant the next crop quickly. They do not bear the full social cost of the pollution they cause. Nor do they pay a cost for depleting groundwater resources to a point of no return. They riposte that it is the duty of the state to provide irrigation water to farmers, which is never adequately available. Low irrigation charges ensure that public irrigation schemes are unprofitable ventures. Note, however, that they are quick to demand a “fair” price for their produce via minimum support prices paid by the government. This right is claimed in recognition of serving the nation by making it self-sufficient in food—by all accounts a significant achievement—but this was a feat five decades ago, when we were dependent on imported food aid.
The bottom line is that, in India, the line separating social cost and benefit from private benefit and cost is blurred. Too often private costs are socialised—the consumption of electricity, cooking gas, water, travel and even owning an “affordable” home are prime examples of socialised private costs. Examples of privatised social costs are personal security (a flourishing albeit inefficient business), delivering speedy justice, public health services (individuals pay for the health impacts of air pollution- a social cost) and basic education (the poor miss out on good early education) dooming even the best amongst them and the economy, to the downward spiral of low skill-low wage.
Encourage local governments to negotiate solutions for the supply of public goods
Allocating costs to those inducing higher costs (polluter pays principle) is one way to go. Consider, for instance, the proposition that farms—which consume 80 percent of the available water—should pay cities, which are perennially short of water, for the privilege of extracting groundwater beyond their share. In return, cities should pay farms for collecting the stubble and converting it to gas to be locally supplied including to cities within a 25-km radius. Such local negotiations optimising the allocation of costs and benefits could actually happen if India were to fully decentralise and empower rural district and city governments.
The proposition that farms—which consume 80 percent of the available water—should pay cities, which are perennially short of water, for the privilege of extracting groundwater beyond their share.
Presently, neither the 700-odd rural districts, where farms are located nor the 5,000-odd cities, where the population is concentrated, swelled by work migrants from rural areas, are fiscally and managerially empowered “political entities” with the capacity to take the lead in problem-solving. They exist only as deconcentrated subalterns of the relevant state government, which operates within a defensive black box that centralised administrations use to mask their shortcomings.
To talk to each other, cities and farms have to route their conversation through the state capital—a throwback to the colonial days, when London would decide the price of a railway ticket from Bombay to Thane. The longer the route adopted for decision-making in administration, the higher the attrition rate of local enthusiasm for change and reform.
Development-oriented governments need to be adept at pricing the supply of public goods and compensating citizens for their absence. Doing so rationalises budget allocation across welfare and development outlays—a negative tax or incentive, for preserving or increasing the supply of public goods and a positive tax for depleting them.
A good recent example is the pricing of carbon emissions, which pose an existential threat. The challenge to curb carbon emissions is global and, if we succeed, the benefits will also be global. But sensibly, each economy is finding its own unique combination of administrative actions, taxes, and incentives, which do the least harm to local economies and provide the biggest bang for the buck globally.
Decentralise pricing and supply decisions for public and merit goods
The actions to curb carbon emissions have to be taken on the ground and the impact felt by real people including the unborn. This is why the agreed global carbon mitigation regime encourages common but differentiated targets and decentralised road maps for the transition. There is a lesson here for national governments. The freedom claimed by them to devise their own pathways to climate stability is not born out of the concept of national sovereignty alone. It is a recognition that the context in which solutions are to be framed is not a universally templated list of inputs which will optimise outcomes everywhere.
The freedom claimed by them to devise their own pathways to climate stability is not born out of the concept of national sovereignty alone.
The most effective solutions for changing behaviour patterns and nudging societies towards new norms, suited to the changing context, have to be forged through the local contestation of ideas. Localities must bear the cost of errors of judgement and reap the benefits of rewarding decisions. Bottle feeding has to end before institutions grow up.
Giving subaltern governance entities in India their head can only lead to good outcomes. Determining the minutiae of a national plan to deal with decarbonisation, within the Panchamrit framework of the Union government, can become an anvil to forge a new governance tradition borrowing from the science behind artesian wells—that the legitimacy of decision-making flows from the bottom upwards.
Sanjeev Ahluwalia is an Advisor at the Observer Research Foundation.
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