Indonesia pledged at the recent COP26 climate summit that its greenhouse gas emissions would peak by 2030 and then start to fall.
It’s also said that it will end deforestation by that same date.
But to reduce emissions from its transport sector, it’s relying on using more biofuels – production of which can lead to the loss of forested land.
So how can it both curb its emissions using biofuels and end deforestation by 2030?
What is Indonesia’s plan for biofuels?
Indonesia is now the world’s third largest producer of biofuels, trailing only Brazil and the United States, and the world’s largest producer of biodiesel, a biofuel substitute for regular diesel fuel.
Biofuels are made from plant and animal waste and can be used to power vehicles, as well as for heating and electricity.
They are regarded as a renewable alternative to traditional fossil fuels (coal, gasoline, and diesel) because they replenish faster and emit fewer greenhouse gases.
Indonesia produces biodiesel from crops, primarily palm oil, and government policy requires that all diesel fuel contain at least 30% biodiesel, with the goal of increasing to 50% by 2025.
The transport sector accounts for 13.6% of the country’s emissions and 45% of its energy consumption. The government believes this policy could reduce their transport emissions by 36 million tonnes of CO2 by 2040.
However, when combined with an expected 6% annual growth in its vehicle fleet, this means that biofuel production will need to increase by nearly 50% over the next three years to meet demand.
This would necessitate a significant increase in biofuel production land, possibly by as much as 1.2 million hectares – equivalent to roughly a quarter of all palm oil cultivation in the country.
What’s the environmental impact of this policy?
In theory, biofuels should reduce emissions when compared to fossil fuels because, as they grow, biofuel crops absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which is then released through combustion, resulting in no net increase in emissions.
The crops can then be replanted, and the cycle can begin again.
However, issues arise as a result of land clearing, such as deforestation, which is required to cultivate these crops.
Forests, far more than crops, are one of the most effective systems for absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere.
By replacing them with biofuel crops, less CO2 is absorbed, resulting in an increase in greenhouse gases, which contributes to global warming.
As a result, clearing forested land to grow soybeans or palm oil, rather than using existing agricultural land, can result in higher emissions per unit of energy than diesel.
The government has tried to implement measures for the sustainable management of its forests. However, earlier this year it failed to extend a ban on new palm oil plantations.
At COP26, Indonesia pledged to end deforestation by 2030, but its environment minister later said the pledge was “clearly inappropriate and unfair.”
In an October interview with the BBC, Indonesian President Joko Widodo defended his country’s deforestation record, claiming that his country had “rehabilitated a lot of hectares” of forests.
It’s true the annual rate of deforestation has come down. But Indonesia continues to be one of the world’s top three countries for the amount of forest loss, primarily because of new palm oil plantations.
When we approached the presidential office about this article, Febry Calvin Tetelepta told us that palm oil plantations were a more efficient way to produce biofuel than crops like sunflower and soy bean.
He stated that palm oil requires less land to produce the same amount of oil, which is correct.
What are other countries doing about biofuels?
More than 60 countries require biodiesel in their fuel supply, but attitudes are shifting in some of them.
Germany, the world’s fourth largest producer of biofuels, has announced that it will stop producing biodiesel from palm oil in 2023 due to concerns about deforestation.
Similarly, the EU has tightened its restrictions.
Brazil, another major biofuel user, has reduced production this year due to successive droughts that have reduced soybean and corn yields.
Thailand has halted the rollout of diesel and biodiesel blends indefinitely due to higher crop prices making production unsustainable.
What about other solutions?
According to Global Forest Watch, there are approximately 50 to 60 other, more environmentally friendly plants, such as candlenut and coconut, that could be used in Indonesia in addition to palm oil.
However, the Carbon Disclosure Project discovered that certification issues for biofuel production, combined with existing subsidies, encourage producers to continue deforestation practises rather than seek out sustainable alternatives.
Indonesia says it wants to move towards electric vehicles to cut transport emissions.
But it currently only has a modest plan for 2.2 million electric cars by 2030 and to sell only electric cars and motorcycles by 2050.
Although Indonesia has over 21 million vehicles on the road, only a few thousand will be electric by the end of 2020.
Given that 90% of Indonesia’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels (mostly coal), driving an electric vehicle currently produces significantly more emissions than driving a diesel or gasoline vehicle.
According to Filda Yusgiantoro, director of an Indonesian energy think tank, “biofuels… from palm oil will continue to play a major role in supplying fuel needs for the transportation sector” given the growing demand for vehicles.
Additional research by Astudestra Ajengrastri and Nurika Manan from BBC Indonesian