Bioenergy for Indonesia means improving smallholders’ livelihoods and maintaining the environment

If Indonesia is to achieve its target of 23% renewable energy, of which 10% should come from bioenergy, by 2025, the nation must simultaneously improve policies, embrace smallholders to improve their livelihoods and maintain the services provided by the environment.

‘Fuel is hydrocarbons and food is carbohydrates; similar molecules are at work to release energy’, noted Dr Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, in his welcoming remarks to the Renewable Energy Forum hosted by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources of the Republic of Indonesia in collaboration with the United Nations Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia and the World Agroforestry Centre, 16–17 October 2015, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia.

‘These molecules release energy that powers our transport and industries, lights our homes and also feeds our bodies’, he explained. ‘And now that we see food as more than just calories or carbohydrates but also as appropriate nutrition to maximise health and an active life, so we must now learn to look at fuel as more than just the combustion of hydrocarbons but as also providing sustenance of livelihoods and environmental services’.

The chlorophyll molecule.

The chlorophyll molecule.

More than 12,000 villages, housing around 50 million people, in Indonesia are not connected to the electricity grid. If Indonesia is to meet to its national electrification coverage target of more than 97%, to bring electricity to nearly all of the population, and power infrastructure and industrial growth while also meeting its commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 29%, or 43% with international help, by 2020 then new ways of thinking about energy production need to be found and implemented quickly and in some of the nation’s most difficult-to-access areas.

‘The Government of Indonesia plans to have 23% of its energy supplies from renewables by 2025’, said Dr Simons, ‘which also contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. It is, indeed, a great achievement that the world now has the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and a common deadline of 2030. But many rural communities are asking, “What about now?” To address all of these issues at once, we need a triple win on energy, livelihoods and land rehabilitation’.

Smallholders are important suppliers of biofuel products in Indonesia. Photo World Agroforestry Centre/Noviana Khususiyah

Smallholders are important suppliers of biofuel products in Indonesia. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Noviana Khususiyah

An important part of achieving this, said Dr Simons, can be found in something as common as a plant’s leaf. It is the best solar panel we have and, while not as efficient as photovoltaic cells, it has an extraordinary battery that outperforms any semiconductor thanks to the chlorophyll molecule, which converts sunlight into energy ready for us to harness. Accordingly, trees should be seen as important contributors to reaching the bioenergy target, with agroforestry systems as a means for smallholders to not only produce energy but also food, medicines and building materials that improve their livelihoods and also contribute to carbon storage and emissions reduction.

‘In Sri Lanka, there are wood-fuelled gasifiers of 5–50 Kw. Tokyo Electric installed a 10 MW plant in Sri Lanka and another eight are commissioned’, pointed out Dr Simons. ‘Wood biomass contributes over a third of primary energy in India. And whatever system, or systems, is decided, it needs to be attractive to investors, both big and small’.

Policies that are harmonious with other parts of government, are integrated across sectors and are enforced are critical for reducing risks for smallholders as well as large firms, especially in a transitional economy where by its nature there lurk many unknowns.

‘Hence, the interplay between public and private institutions and smallholders is crucial’, he said.

A recent report by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment found that by 2050, only 50–200 million hectares of land would be needed to produce 20% of the planet’s primary energy from bioenergy. This isn’t a huge amount, especially given the large amount of degraded and under-used land in the world.

‘Land availability isn’t the problem’, said Dr Simons, ‘but rather our land-use choices are’.

Perhaps the most well-known of the bioenergy plants is oil palm, which has been linked to the destruction of forests and biodiversity but it is also one of the best crops for efficiently capturing CO2 and turning it into energy. But there have been problems for smallholders relying totally on a single crop for their livelihoods. If global prices for the commodity fall, as is the case in 2015, so do farmers’ incomes.

‘If we can diversify, we can improve the situation not only for farmers but for productivity, too’, argued Dr Simons. ‘In Brazil, a seven-year experiment has been testing oil palm intercropped with trees and it is proving that such systems can indeed improve livelihoods while also meeting environmental and productivity goals’.

Oil palm and agroforestry experimental plot in Brazil, Year 5. Photo: Debora Castellani

Oil palm and agroforestry experimental plot in Brazil, Year 5. Photo: Debora Castellani

In Indonesia, work by the World Agroforestry Centre with farmers and local government in the province of Jambi in Sumatra has shown that oil palm can be successfully intercropped on peat with indigenous trees. And in Malaysia at the recent International Palm Oil Congress, the concept of ‘livelihoods’ insetting’ for palm-oil companies was met with a warm reception from industry leaders. Insetting simultaneously addresses consumer concerns about oil-palm sustainability and industry concerns about productivity by embedding sustainable activities directly into a business’s supply chain, leading to the build-up of human capital in the communities involved and improved productivity and environmental dividends.

Oil palm intercropped with 'jelutung', an indigenous, latex-producing tree, in Jambi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Oil palm intercropped with ‘jelutung’, an indigenous, latex-producing tree, in Jambi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

‘However, if the Government of Indonesia wants 23% from renewables, of which 10% should come from bioenergy, by 2025, then those plants have to be in the ground before 2020’, pointed out Dr Simons. ‘We need action to start now. But we also should not be fooled into thinking that one size fits all. There is the risk of looking for the magic solution, whether it be sugarcane, soy, Pongamia, Croton, Miscanthus, Nipa or any of the other candidates’.

Experience with other ‘wonder’ plants shows that hype can replace scientific evidence and lead to many failures and disappointments. Choices should be based on solid evidence from experience in the field and include a full life-cycle analysis to ensure that greenhouse-gas reductions are not foiled by gains elsewhere.

‘We found that with Jatropha, for example’, said Dr Simons, ‘that its development wasn’t based on full carbon accounting and allowed biofuel-importing countries to ignore emissions caused elsewhere. The accounting systems are more complete now. The plant’s development was also based on land grabbing and concession systems that didn’t respect local rights and decision-making processes. It helped some large players make money but didn’t provide opportunities for local livelihoods to support sustainable growth. In the move from fossil fuels to living fuels, we need to continue to enlighten investors and policy makers, empower local communities and energise action by government and all people interested in the bioenergy landscape’.




Also read

Sustainable bioenergy and the Sustainable Development Goals in Indonesia



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This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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