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Bioenergy crops need to be chosen carefully

Indonesia is gearing up to grow a large proportion of its energy in the form of trees and other crops. However, it isn’t as simple as sticking a tree in the ground and driving off in the fuel it produces. Experience shows that people’s lives need to be taken into consideration not to mention the environmental consequences.

 

‘There are basically three types of feedstock that can produce so-called biological fuels or “biofuels”’, said Dr Sonya Dewi, the Indonesia program coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) at the recent Bali Clean Energy Forum. ‘Choosing the right mix for the right landscape is the key to a successful bioenergy production strategy that not only fuels the nation’s vehicles and electricity plants but also drives rural development and helps a country realise its commitment to all of the Sustainable Development Goals, not just number seven on energy for all’.

The Bali Clean Energy Forum, held at the Nusa Dua Convention Center, 11—12 February 2016, brought together representatives of 26 countries; the private sector; experts in the field of energy; civil society; and young people. It was organized by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in cooperation with the International Energy Agency. Dr Dewi was speaking as part of a special session on bioenergy organised by ICRAF.

The three types of feedstock are, first, conventional food crops with well-established markets. Some of these, such as sugar cane and maize, can be used to produce fuel suitable for powering transport, industry and households. Doing so, however, might reduce the amount of food available. The debate around whether this can be managed effectively without harming food supplies to a growing global population has been called the ‘Food vs Fuel’ issue.

Diversion of food crops to bioenergy production could have dire consequences. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Diversion of food crops to bioenergy production could have dire consequences. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

The second type of feedstock is so-called ‘energy’ trees and grasses. These typically have markets that are in the process of being established. They can be grown on marginal and degraded land. Energy crops that are planted for profit are usually densely cultivated and high yielding and the biomass they produce is burnt to generate electricity. Crops that have attracted research interest include Leucaena spp.

Species such as Leucaena grow on marginal land and offer potential for bioenergy development. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Species such as Leucaena grow on marginal land and offer potential for bioenergy development. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

The third type is underused species, that is, plants about which little is known other than that they might have potential as feedstock. Of course, such commodities have under-developed markets. They also usually provide environmental ‘co-benefits’, such as protecting watersheds, buffering coastal zones and acting as habitat for a range of floral and faunal species that in themselves add to the whole ecosystem that sustains human existence. These types of crops are typically at the level of ‘home industry’ or pilot studies.

Nypa fruticans is an underused species that might also provide environmental co-benefits. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Nypa fruticans is an underused species that might also provide environmental co-benefits. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

‘No matter which of these sources—or any combination of them—might be selected for production within any given landscape, there are certain common factors that investors will neglect at their peril’, said Dr Dewi.

‘The first and by far the most important is that local contexts and drivers of land-use change actually matter. Large-scale investors, whether government or industry, often overlook the people and issues that dominant the landscapes that they plan to develop. Without serious consideration of local conditions, any endeavour faces the risk of protracted conflict, with accompanying production and reputational issues’.

Accordingly, she argued that feedstock production had to be integrated into governmental land-use planning that was participatory and which embraced a robust monitoring and evaluation system that was accountable and transparent, preferably engaging the local people themselves rather than being imposed from outside.

To put this into practice, a ‘bottom–up’ tool was necessary to promote inclusive, integrated and informed processes. Such a tool was being successfully tested in Indonesia: Land-use Planning for Multiple Environmental Services (LUMENS) has been deployed in numerous districts from Papua to Sumatra in a series of linked projects led by Dr Dewi that are supported by the European Union, Danish International Development Agency and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. The National Development Planning Agency had already mandated LUMENS for use in all provinces to assist with collating data necessary for accounting for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions as committed to by the Government of Indonesia.

Governments, the private sector and development agencies would be wise to consider the results of the LUMENS projects when planning their biofuel interventions. Otherwise, they run the risk of fuelling the nation while impoverishing its people.

 

 

 

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This work is linked to the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

 

 

 

 

rfinlayson@cgiar.org'

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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