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Peter Holmgren: Splitting hairs over splitting wood

Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
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Village children collect firewood for cooking fuel, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Nick Hogarth for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

By Peter Holmgren, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

The past month has seen a fierce international and academic debate flare up again over the large-scale use of wood to produce energy, notably in Europe. When we agreed on “Forests and Energy” as the theme for this year’s International Day of Forests on 21 March, we had no idea that there would be such a timely opportunity to share how forests and biomass can deliver crucial energy to support the livelihoods of billions of people, and at the same time provide major opportunities for our climate-smart future.

Bioenergy is energy produced from biomass and waste. The share of bioenergy in the global energy mix has been about 10% over past decades – about double that of the nuclear energy supply and five times that of hydro energy, from a baseline of 2014. The majority of bioenergy comes from wood and plants, often in the form of by-products from agriculture or forestry production. Some 2.6 billion of the world’s poor (equal to 40% of the global population) depend on traditional forms of bioenergy for cooking, heating and income, making it a major factor for livelihoods and food security worldwide.

An earlier controversy arose over the links between liquid biofuels and food security (see, for example, studies by FAO, IFPRI, IIASA and CFS). Liquid biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, constitute a small fraction of bioenergy use. While the use of liquid biofuels has increased in recent years, it remains only about 0.5% of all energy consumed (see statistics here). Biofuels became popular in government policies, first to improve domestic energy security and later also as a means to reduce climate impact. Liquid biofuels are particularly useful in the transport industry, and some recent studies show they could have unexpected climate benefits. But considerable subsidies offered for the production of biofuels have led to questions over undue competition with food production on lands suitable for agriculture. These have impacted food prices and food security. Socioeconomic, ethical, environmental and rights-based arguments were raised at the 2008 Food Summit in Rome. Policies around liquid biofuels remain contentious, although there are expectations that new technology using non-food feedstock, such as cellulose, can provide new opportunities.

The extent to which food production is a limiting factor for food security can, of course, be debated. One reflection is that during more food-insecure times in history, we used a much higher proportion of agricultural land and produce than today to feed our means of transportation – namely, oxen and horses. That said, policies that pay out subsidies for otherwise unprofitable biofuel production need to be well scrutinized for efficiency, as well as unfair competition with food.

A more recent controversy has flared over the use of wood biomass for large-scale energy production, as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale policies and subsidy schemes, for example by the European Union, have been at the center of attention.

A 2013 article in The Economist argued that the political decisions made to increase biomass in the EU energy mix are causing havoc in the wood market, including by raising competition with traditional forest industries. The question was raised as to whether it is wise to use taxpayers’ money to fuel this development. In addition to concerns over subsidy efficiencies, the article ends by stating that wood energy is worse than coal when it comes to an immediate impact on the climate, and reference is made to scientific findings. Fittingly, the subtitle of the article is “Environmental lunacy in Europe.” This “dirtier than coal” notion was introduced in an advocacy paper by the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and created an argument that seems to have struck a chord with the media.

Other major NGOs have also given considerable space to criticizing biofuels and bioenergy, including the World Resources Institute (WRI). Arguments cover both the food security aspect as well as limited climate benefits. There is a tendency to generalize and politicize – concerns over “global competition for land” and “dedicating land for bioenergy” point to large-scale, mono-objective assumptions that create a false dichotomy between bioenergy and all other land-based benefits.

Then, a month ago, a Chatham House report reignited the debate. Like previous inputs, the paper argues that the EU subsidy scheme is a bad use of taxpayers’ money, that the climate benefits are negligible, and that using wood for energy is generally unsustainable and should not be characterized as renewable. The report was contested by 125 signatories of a response from the International Energy Agency, who argued that the analysis and assumptions were incorrect based on at least three major concerns. The debate has since continued to engage academics, activists and policy makers.

So what to make of this heated debate? One gets the impression that otherwise credible media and institutes take surprisingly strong and polarized positions against bioenergy. Is there a way to reconcile these views so as to support a sustainable, climate-smart future?

It would appear that the bioenergy debate needs a broader and more long-term perspective. Focusing only on subsidy schemes and the associated accounting related to greenhouse gas emissions to meet policy targets in the next few years does not provide a holistic picture of a future that we may want to aspire to. If we, for example, aim at a fossil-free, net-zero emissions future further down the line, we have to look at how the biological systems can continue to supply food and energy in integrated ways. And further, we can’t address emissions in isolation, but must develop pathways where climate benefits go hand in hand with improved prosperity and food security for the world’s poor. We should then embrace that bioenergy has a huge role to play for the foreseeable future. And we have to acknowledge a major potential for technology development to serve a bio-based economy, where energy will continue to be an important by-product. These aspects were discussed at a recent international workshop at CIFOR.

A woman drives a cart of firewood back to Zorro village, Burkina Faso. Photo: CIFOR

One common argument is that it is better to leave trees standing than to burn them. This is a very appealing idea, but it is only correct with a short time horizon, and if you don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Forest management implies, among other things, that forest productivity is maintained, while allowing for a sustainable harvest of trees for a multitude of purposes, including energy as an important product. This can lead to extraordinary results over the long term. In Sweden, the standing forest biomass has doubled over the last 100 years, and the sustainable harvest has also doubled. Active forestry can therefore deliver more carbon sequestration, more renewable energy, and more economic value, simultaneously! These are the types of long-term goals and perspectives we need to establish before haggling over the effects of short-term policies.

That said, there are also problematic issues, mainly with traditional forms of bioenergy such as fuelwood and charcoal. Perhaps most notable are the health problems caused by indoor air pollution, to which is attributed an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths in 2012 – a level of calamity that dwarfs current or predicted consequences of overall climate change. Further, working conditions in traditional bioenergy value chains, such as charcoal, are often poor and risky. Unsustainable harvesting of wood resources for bioenergy has led to the degradation of vast expanses of land in some countries. Emissions of soot and pollutants can cause hazards for communities. All of these are serious matters that must – and can – be addressed, but must not, in my view, be used to generally condemn bioenergy and wood energy as important ingredients in our sustainable energy mix and integrated land-use systems.

We need a balanced, long-term and holistic vision of how forests and trees can increasingly provide renewable, clean, efficient and modern energy, supporting livelihoods and a sustainable future worldwide. This is a big part of the solution.

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  • Forests and Energy: What’s the connection?

Forests and Energy: What’s the connection?

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What connects forests and energy? Hear from Peter Holmgren, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and Himlal Baral, a scientist in CIFOR’s Forests and Environment Program, in conversation with Forests News Editor Leona Liu on the occasion of the UN International Day of Forests on 21 March 2017, with the theme ‘Forests and Energy’.

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  • International Workshop on Developing science- and evidence-based policy and practice of bioenergy in Indonesia within the context of sustainable development

International Workshop on Developing science- and evidence-based policy and practice of bioenergy in Indonesia within the context of sustainable development

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  • Bioenergy in Indonesia: An international workshop

Bioenergy in Indonesia: An international workshop

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The international workshop on ‘Developing science- and evidence-based policy and practice of bioenergy in Indonesia within the context of sustainable development’ was co-organized by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), partners in the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

Policymakers, researchers, and representatives from the private sector and civil society, among others, discussed progress made so far on developing a bioenergy sector in Indonesia, and how research can help inform sustainable policy and practice into the future.

The workshop was held on 14 February 2017 in Bogor, in collaboration with the Research and Development Agency at Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (Badan Litbang ESDM), the Forestry and Environment Research, Development and Innovation Agency at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (Badan Litbang-Inovasi LHK) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden (KTH), under the sponsorship of the Swedish Energy Agency.

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  • Producing bioenergy with agroforestry could be a model for Indonesia: Tony Simons

Producing bioenergy with agroforestry could be a model for Indonesia: Tony Simons

Firewood is the main energy source of Wae Rebo people in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Photo: Aulia Erlangga /CIFOR
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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

At the Renewable Energy Forum in Bali in October 2015, the World Agroforestry Centre and the Indonesian government agreed to strengthen research on renewable energy. Bioenergy will also have a more prominent role in the new phase of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, in connection with research on climate change and forests. With this in mind, Robert Finlayson spoke to Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, about wonder crops, the role of smallholders and the benefits of agroforestry for the production of bioenergy.

Bioenergy is certainly a buzzword. And the danger with buzzwords is that everyone can use them without having a clear idea what they really mean. How would you describe bioenergy?

Fuel is hydrocarbons and food is carbohydrates; similar molecules are at work to release energy. These molecules release energy that powers our transport and industries, lights our homes and also feeds our bodies. 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.

An important part of achieving this 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.

Firewood is the main energy source of Wae Rebo people in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Photo: Aulia Erlangga /CIFOR
Firewood is the main energy source of Wae Rebo people in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Photo: Aulia Erlangga /CIFOR

The World Agroforestry Centre and the Indonesian government want to collaborate on research into renewables. Indonesia has ambitious plans in this area. ICRAF focuses a lot of its work on smallholders and their livelihoods. What would investment in bioenergy mean for them?

The Government of Indonesia plans to have 23% of its energy supplies from renewables by 2025, 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 Goals and a common deadline of 2030.

What is needed, especially in a transitional economy like Indonesia, are policies that are harmonious with other parts of government, that are integrated across sectors and that are enforced. This is how you reduce risks for smallholders as well as large firms.

And whatever system, or systems, is decided, it needs to be attractive to investors, both big and small. The interplay between public and private institutions and smallholders is crucial.

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. How can the government convince villagers that renewable energy is the solution to their problems?

Trees should be seen as important contributors to reaching the bioenergy target. And agroforestry systems are 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. Wood biomass contributes over a third of primary energy in India.


Also read: Bioenergy boosted through international agreement in Bali


Oil palm fruits. Photo: CIFOR
Oil palm fruits. Photo: CIFOR

Indonesia already has problems of deforestation with oil palm production. Where will the land to produce renewable energy come from?

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. So land availability isn’t the problem, but rather our land-use choices are.

Oil palm is has been linked to the destruction of forests and biodiversity, but it is also a very efficient bioenergy plant. So how do we balance the benefit and the risks from such a crop?

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. 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.

In Indonesia, work by the World Agroforestry Centre with farmers and local governments in the province of Jambi in Sumatra has shown that oil palm can be successfully intercropped on peat with indigenous trees.

And there is the concept of ‘livelihoods’ insetting’. 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.

Beware of so-called miracle crops such as Jatropha. Photo: Jeff Walker/CIFOR
Beware of so-called miracle crops such as Jatropha. Photo: Jeff Walker/CIFOR

So what is the best bet to produce energy from plants?

We 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, 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.

So you advise against monoculture and ‘wonder crops’. Apart from creating the policy framework for a sustainable bioenergy sector, what else should the government keep in mind?

If the Government of Indonesia wants 23% of their energy from renewables by 2025, of which 10% should come from bioenergy, then those plants have to be in the ground before 2020. We need action to start now.


Further reading from Agroforestry World Blog:

Improving timber and non-timber products in Indonesia

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

Sustainable bioenergy and the Sustainable Development Goals in Indonesia


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