Q&A: How FAO and partners are working to help countries explore sustainable bioenergy development

Photo: ©FAO/Dhani S. Wibawa

Oil palm seedling in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Through the Global Bioenergy Partnership, FAO is helping countries to better assess the possible risks and benefits of bioenergy. In this interview, Michela Morese of FAO’s energy team talks about recent FAO work in Colombia and Indonesia to test bioenergy sustainability indicators.

Why are developing countries interested in producing biofuels? Shouldn’t they focus on growing food?

The production and use of bioenergy is on the rise in many parts of the world as countries seek to diversify their energy sources while promoting sustainable development.  

Certainly crop production for use in biofuels should not compete with food production or negatively impact food security. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive – if developed in the right way, a healthy biofuels sector can make important contributions to a country by improving energy access and food security.

Switching from traditional to modern bioenergy systems can reduce deforestation and free women and children from collecting fuelwood and help reduce illnesses air pollution. It can also cut dependence on imported fossil fuels, improving countries’ energy security as well as their foreign exchange balances. In addition, the production and use of bioenergy can expand access to modern energy services and bring infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, schools and health centres to poor rural areas. In such areas, bioenergy offers a chance to increase the income of small-scale farmers, alleviating poverty and decreasing the gap between rich and poor. In urban centres, using biofuels in transport can improve air quality.

Are there also risks involved? 

If not sustainably managed, bioenergy development can place extra pressure on biodiversity, scarce water resources and food security. If land use is not well planned and oversight is inadequate, increased deforestation, loss of peatlands and land degradation can occur and lead to an overall negative impact on climate change. Where land tenure is insecure, communities can be displaced and lose access to land and other natural resources.

What are the sustainability indicators that FAO and GBEP have developed and how can they be used?

The Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP) has produced a set of twenty-four indicators for the assessment and monitoring of bioenergy sustainability at the national level. These indicators address all types of biofuels (e.g. ethanol, biodiesel, biogas) for electricity, heat and transport. FAO has provided substantial technical inputs to this work, and is also among the founding members of the Partnership and hosts the Secretariat in Rome. The indicators are intended to inform policy-makers about the environmental, social and economic aspects of the bioenergy sector in their country and guide them towards policies that foster sustainable development. Measured over time, the indicators will show progress towards or away from a nationally defined sustainable development path.

The GBEP indicators are unique in that they are a product of the only multilateral initiative that has built consensus on the sustainable production and use of bioenergy among a wide range of national governments (fifty) and international organizations (twenty-six). 

GBEP recently wrapped up a project applying the indicators in Colombia and Indonesia. What were the lessons learned?

FAO tested the GBEP indicators in Colombia and Indonesia, with support from the International Climate Initiative (ICI) of the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resource, and Nuclear Safety of Germany. 

The testing confirmed the high relevance of the environmental, social and economic issues addressed by the GBEP sustainability indicators for bioenergy. It also showed the importance of strengthening the capacity of developing countries to monitor the sustainability of bioenergy, especially with regard to complex issues such as greenhouse gas emissions and food security, as was done in the context of this project through a series of trainings and workshops.

Can you give us an example of activities carried out during this project? 

In order to support the future monitoring of the effects of bioenergy production and use on food supply and prices, two trainings were carried out in Indonesia using the Aglink-Cosimo model, which offers a way to assess the impacts of biofuel production on agricultural and food markets, as well as a way to evaluate future biofuel scenarios linked to different policies and targets.

The monitoring and evaluation of the sustainability of this sector should be done in a context of multi-stakeholder dialogue. Both in Colombia and Indonesia the project stimulated and facilitated dialogue across all relevant ministries and other key stakeholders,  like producers’ organizations. Regional workshops were organized in both countries in order to foster the exchange of information and experiences among countries in the respective regions.

Has sustainability been an issue there? 

Yes, the testing in Colombia and Indonesia provided interesting preliminary insights into the sustainability of the bioenergy sector in these two countries. So far bioenergy production and use has not triggered significant impacts on the domestic supply and price of the main food basket items in either country. This might change if more ambitious biofuel targets are put in place, such as those currently under consideration in Indonesia. At the same time, it is recommended to pay more attention in both countries to the land-use changes associated with the expansion of key bioenergy feedstocks (e.g. oil palm), which may have negative repercussions on environmental and social sustainability. If conversion of land with high carbon stocks is avoided, the displacement of fossil fuels with bioenergy can lead to important GHG emission reductions.

How can this experience be replicated elsewhere, and what is next for the GBEP?

Following the positive outcomes of the project in Colombia and Indonesia, FAO is exploring with the donor the opportunity to support the implementation of the GBEP indicators in four additional countries: Ethiopia and Kenya, under UNEP’s coordination; and Paraguay and Vietnam, under FAO’s coordination. The lessons learnt from the implementation of the indicators in these and other countries will then be shared with the GBEP community and used to improve the practicality of the indicators, so as to facilitate their widespread use.

GBEP is also promoting capacity building for sustainable bioenergy development, by fostering exchange of information, skills and technologies through bilateral and multilateral collaboration. In the context of this work, a Bioenergy Week is organized every year in a different continent. The goal of this initiative is to bring together relevant stakeholders in order to discuss specific bioenergy-related priorities and challenges faced by the countries in the region. In 2014, the Bioenergy week took place in Mozambique, with the links between bioenergy and food security as one of the main topics being discussed.

8 December 2014