Jakarta, November 10, 2022-Trend Asia’s latest report “Deforestation Threats of Energy Crops”, released on November 8th 2022,  challenged the Indonesian government’s claim that co-firing biomass in coal-fired power plants is a valid clean energy transition strategy. Contrary to the mission to fight climate change, biomass co-firing has the potential to damage Indonesian natural forests– one of the most vital global carbon sinks. If co-firing is fueled by wood pellets, there is a risk of up to 2 million hectares of natural forest deforestation

In order to pursue the targeted 23% renewable energy mix, the Indonesian Government has been co-firing biomass in 33 coal plants by the middle of this year, and is aiming to expand the practice to 52 power plants by 2025. This co-firing method is Indonesia’s current main utilization of biomass power. By mixing 1% to 10% portions of biomass, such as wood pellets, palm shells, or rice husk as fuel in coal plants, the government found a way to cheaply transition into “renewable energy”.

But Indonesia’s inefficient waste management made it difficult to supply plants solely with waste biomass. Waste-biomass co-firing power plants like the Jeranjang coal plant in the NTB province and the Sintang coal plant in West Kalimantan failed to get a sustainable supply of fuel. The easiest solution to meet this huge demand is with wood pellets. This will encourage the construction of massive timber plantations, known as Energy Plantation Forests (HTE) or energy plantations.

This will almost certainly lead to deforestation, especially when we consider Indonesia’s history with timber plantations. MapBiomas Indonesia explained that from the total of 3,500,622 hectares of ​​HTI (Industrial Plantation Forest) in 2019, 38% or 1,330,236 hectares of it came from the clearing of natural forests. The Indonesian National Energy Company (PLN) planned to co-fire 52 coal-fired power plants with biomass in the near future, which will require 10.23 million tons of wood pellets per year. The need for new energy plantations to feed the plants will be massive.

To meet the demand for wood pellets of this scale, it takes at least 2.33 million hectares of energy plantation, equivalent to 35 times the area of the Province of ​​Jakarta or to 3,270,000 football fields. depending on the type of wood used. It is very likely that natural forests will be cleared. If 38% of the new plantations came from the clearing of natural forests like in the past, deforestation could reach 629,845 to 2.1 million hectares.” said Mumu Muhajir,  a researcher from Trend Asia.

A False Solution to Climate Change and Energy Transition

The Indonesian government seems to be fixated on reducing emission from the energy sector, yet they achieve this by increasing emission from the Forestry and other Land Use (FOLU) sector.  The government, through the Minister of Environment Siti Nurbaya Bakar, has already stated that the FOLU sector would be an indispensable component in fighting climate change through carbon absorption. But at the same time, the government has weakened its ambition by increasing the maximum deforestation quota from 325,000 hectares to 359,000 hectares per year for the 2020-2030 period. Minister Siti Nurbaya even defended this decision by saying that deforestation and climate change prevention should not hinder economic development.

“People, communities, and CSOs need to realize that the supposedly “green” biomass energy is burning down forests. The global rate of ​​deforestation has continued to increase in the last 20 years, and this must be stopped. When we are talking about forests, we’re not only talking about carbon, but also about biodiversity and other vital factors supporting the environment. The data from IPCC has also shown that deforestation can even threaten food security,” said Souparna Lahiri of the Asia-Pacific Biomass Working Group, who was present as a speaker at the discussion accompanying the release of the report.

Moreover, the “carbon neutrality” of the usage of wood pellets as an energy source have been challenged. The Trend Asia report “Battle on Emission Reduction Claims” showed that the government’s claim that biomass co-firing is carbon neutral only works if we don’t calculate the total emission from the upstream to the downstream, including from the deforestation of natural forests. This process will build a carbon debt that would take decades to pay off through carbon sequestration by new trees, too much time to fight against climate change. This policy is not a substantial effort to fight against climate change, as it panders more to the interest of the Indonesian fossil fuel oligarchy.

“This biomass co-firing project is just a cosmetic effort by the government to appear ‘green’ to the public. The massive development of energy plantations will result in new issues. These large-scale projects will often lead to abuse and land grab, as the land management in Indonesia is notoriously non-transparent and dominated by a few oligarchs.“ said Meike Inda Erlina, a campaigner for Trend Asia.

“The government has even provided the regulatory infrastructure in the forestry sector through multi-business licensing and the exclusivity of energy security projects through the Presidential Decree No. 112 of 2022 and the EB-ET (New and Renewable Energy) Bill which has been included in the National Legislation Program. These policies paved the way for entrepreneurs to continue their dirty energy business by co-firing biomass and coal, extending the life of old coal-plants, and through various greenwashing methods to access incentives,” Meike concluded.

If the Indonesian government is serious about energy transition, they should stop the practice of co-firing biomass and stop the various incentives for energy plantations. The Java-Bali-Madura network, Indonesia’s largest energy grid, is already oversupplied. The clear solution is to stop the development of new coal plants, hasten the early retirement of old coal plants, and encourage the development of actual clean and renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy. 

Indonesia, as a tropical maritime country, will face some of the harshest effects of climate change. Its tropical forests, second largest in the world after Brazil, are also vital not only for itself, but also for the global fight against climate change. Yet the government mostly approached the fight against climate change from an economic angle: as opportunities for incentives and investments. The government is yet to deal with this issue as an existential threat. 


Photo: PT IHM’s industrial plantation forest area in North Penajam Paser district, East Kalimantan Province, Saturday (November 27, 2021). This area is planned to be part of ring one in the construction of a new state capital in the district. Melvinas Priananda/Trend Asia