Despite its massive potential as a sustainable source of energy, bioenergy alone cannot fulfill global demand. To produce biofuels at the scale required to serve overall planetary need may require excluding large amounts of land from commodity crop production, putting food security at risk.
Bioenergy is derived from a range of renewable sources, including crops and crop residues. With careful landscape management and use of degraded and underutilized lands, bioenergy production is feasible and could offer monetary rewards for investors and local communities alike – as long as potential pitfalls are assessed and remedied, according to researchers.
Recent scientific investigations by forestry scientists in Indonesia and South Korea demonstrate the value of planting bioenergy-producing trees to restore degraded, marginal lands unsuited to food crops. They also reveal that if carefully managed, local communities can benefit from ecosystem services derived from sustainable biofuel production.
“Bioenergy is the most abundant and versatile form of renewable energy in the world,” said Himlal Baral, senior scientist, Climate Change, Energy and Low Carbon Development with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
Baral and other international experts summarized the latest research on bioenergy in a discussion forum titled “Integrating bioenergy and landscape restoration in the tropics,” at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) conference in Bonn, Germany. Topics included biofuel species selection, resource use and entrepreneurial initiatives with speakers from research institutions, government, and private sectors
“Bioenergy is key to supporting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the context of climate change and energy security,” Baral said, adding that scientists are primarily focused on SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 15 (Life on Land) to protect and restore ecosystems as they conduct research into drained peatland ecosystems in Indonesia.
Currently, most organic biomass is used as traditional fuel burned for heat or cooking – very little is used to generate electricity or heat through sophisticated or closed energy systems, said Nils Borchard, research manager of plant production at Natural Resources Institute Finland and a former CIFOR scientist, who works alongside Baral.
Their study of biofuel involves investigating bio-oil production to understand more about potential cropping systems and how to manage them, while learning more about which technology can meet specific energy demands.
Baral’s investigations in Indonesia involve experimental trials with the bioenergy crop “nyamplung” commonly also known as “tamanu” (Calophyllum inophyllum L.). The scientists argue that the crop should be planted and nurtured only on drained, marginal peatlands, which are not suitable for other land use. It should not lead to drainage of intact peatlands, which sequester large amounts of carbon.
Borchard’s work has also involved examining the potential to diversify palm oil plantations by introducing crops that produce oil for the production of biomass bio-oil or bio ethanol. Despite progress, questions regarding agroforestry and biofuel require further research, he said.