In the face of a growing demand for energy and an increased concern about environmental impacts, several countries of Southeast Asia are planning a transition from traditional energy systems to a diversified bioeconomy. Despite the currently low prices for fossil energy due to a number of geopolitical reasons, these governments are exploring ways to substitute biomass for fossil fuels in future energy generation and to increase the efficiency with which traditional forest, farm, and urban biomass materials are used for industrial, community, and domestic processes. One of the most prominent reasons for the need to redesign the global energy economy is to mitigate the negative anthropogenic impact that continued fossil fuel use has on our climate. This threatens global ecosystems, rural and coastal communities [1
], energy security [2
], and even national security [3
]. Decentralization and diversification of energy systems can greatly contribute to increased resilience against disturbances of various origins [5
]. The socioeconomic implications of such a transition can be beneficial in terms of livelihoods, especially in rural areas, because energy supply diversification is associated with more opportunities, including “green jobs” [6
Wind and photo-voltaic energy systems are widely deployed, but they only produce electricity and are intermittent and hence they struggle to satisfy society’s steady demand for many types of energy [7
]. Strategies to solve wind and solar power’s intermittency include linking generation over large geographic areas or storing the power in batteries or some other form of chemical or mechanical potential energy. Sometimes, renewable sources are paired with other systems that consume fossil or nuclear fuels. In this way, they can reduce the demand from the companion system.
Biomass is nature’s sustainable energy storage system. Unlike the intermittent energy sources like wind and/or solar, biomass can deliver that energy on demand and do so in a continuous way. Biomass is the only source of renewable carbon-based feedstock. It is diverse and abundant and can be converted into heat, electricity, liquids, and gases, as well as advanced and traditional bioproducts. While it is less energy dense than fossil fuels (which are essentially just buried biomass), sustainably produced biomass has the advantage of containing atmospheric rather than fossil carbon and so has a smaller carbon footprint when it is used [8
]. Deploying advanced biomass-based energy systems has been identified as a key way to reliably and sustainably satisfy the future development needs of the countries in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia has a subtropical to tropical climate. Thailand’s mean annual precipitation is approximately 1200 mm, with some regions may receive more than 4000 mm. Average seasonal temperatures range from 23.1 °C in winter to 29.6 °C in summer [9
]. These favorable environmental conditions coupled with fertile soils support high ecosystem productivity and biodiversity in the Indo-Burma region, which ranks among the world’s top 10 biodiversity hotspots [10
]. The river basins in this region were subject to early deforestation to create space for the production of agricultural crops, especially rice. In dryer regions, common crops are still Hevea brasiliensis
(Müll.) Arg. (rubber tree), introduced at the end of the 19th century [11
], and Manihot esculenta
Crantz (cassava), introduced at around the same time [12
]. Other fast-growing tree species such as Acacia spp. or Eucalyptus spp., were introduced around the 1940s [13
], but became widely cultivated after 1970, mainly for extracting industrial feedstock raw materials (e.g., pulp), and recently, increasingly for bioenergy. The natural forests of the region were suffering from the highest rate of deforestation among all major tropical regions in the past, with disastrous consequences for the rich biodiversity [14
]. In order to accommodate and expand upon the long tradition of using raw biomass and charcoal for energy [15
] while mitigating the negative effects of a changing global climate, a number of initiatives to promote bioenergy were recently implemented through national energy-related policies within this region.
The Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) was initiated by the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003 [16
], with the objective of improving economic collaboration between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Thailand was expected to provide funds to reduce the development gaps between the ACMECS countries [17
], which have a human development index (HDI) ranging from 0.726 in Thailand to 0.536 in Myanmar [18
] (see Table 1
). During the third ACMECS summit meeting in 2008, studies on bio-energy feasibility [19
]. Five years later, the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA) approved a project proposal submitted by Kasetsart University (Bangkok, Thailand) in 2013, which should finally address the potential for joint bioenergy development in the ACMECS region (see Figure 1
). Three ACMECS regional bioenergy workshops were held under this project that led to the development and discussion of National Bioenergy Development Plans (NBDP). Following the first meeting (held in Bangkok in 2013), the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) approved a proposal for a scientific Task Force (TF) titled “Sustainable Forest Biomass Network (SFBN)”, which was finally installed in April 2015 [20
]. One of the key objectives of this TF is to provide scientific support and guidance at the ACMECS workshops as the NBDP were being developed.
This paper summarizes the activities and results of this project, including activities at the three workshops and the resulting NBDP documents. It further describes the process followed to solicit perceptions and visions of all stakeholders involved in the project, in order to identify gaps between official documents and issues highlighted as important during more open discussions at the project workshops. Finally, elements that might form a regional synthesis plan were identified in an effort to provoke a differentiated dialogue in the ongoing policy development that includes a thorough analysis of potential benefits and risks in order to ensure a sustainable implementation of bioenergy in the ACMECS countries.
3.1. Analysis of NBDPs
The NBDPs provided a very insightful overview on the current bioenergy status of the respective countries. For instance, it was shown that bioenergy is by far the most important resource of renewable energy, between 91 and nearly 100% (Table 1
), despite significant investments in other renewable sectors, such as hydropower and wind energy [30
]. The most important bioenergy commodities are traditional (fuelwood and wood charcoal), followed by woodchips and pellets, which are currently only in widespread use in Thailand and Vietnam. While biomass is the most important source of primary energy in some less developed countries (e.g., Myanmar and Cambodia), it still plays an important role in sustaining the livelihood of rural populations in more developed nations, such as in Thailand and Vietnam.
The National Bioenergy Development Plans (NBDP) developed by each of the five ACMECS countries contained a “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats” (SWOT) analysis. A meta-review of these SWOT analyses [24
] was carried out and a synthesis was recently published [31
]. The aim was to identify the most common and universal items in each SWOT category. Table 3
lists the main conclusions and can be viewed as the SWOT matrix for the entire region. The synthesis of the individual national SWOT analyses confirms that the region has vast and diverse resources and a great potential for biomass production. There is also a rising regional and international demand for biomass. However, it turned out that a further development of these resources must carefully consider environmental and land tenure issues. A missing policy framework and political instabilities should be jointly addressed to minimize an investor’s risks. Research is needed to establish a sound database on biomass data, especially since spatially explicit information is largely missing.
3.2. Results of Co-Therm Analysis
Visualization of similarities (VOS) (Figure 2
) revealed that key terms, such as biomass energy development, needs (expressed as “lack” in the documents), power (generation), efficiency, system (represents a more holistic approach, e.g., “energy system”), and indicator occur relatively often in the NBDPs. The cluster including biomass energy development includes elements of the SWOT analysis and is distant from the biomass feedstock cluster. “Lack” is an item that is well connected and centered, indicating a prominent position of needs in the NBDPs, across topics. The cluster “efficiency” is strongly linked to alternative energy and its development. It is also obvious that the cluster dominating on economics includes all business scales, from farmers to enterprises, as well as community. Topics, such as sustainability and climate change, as well as sustainable development and resource use, or technology transfer, are not prominently positioned, although they are defined as key targets in the proposed regional network.
3.3. Summary of the Post-Workshop Survey
In total, 52 responses were received (recovery rate of 74%). A total of 24 contained personal contact information and the rest were submitted anonymously. Two respondents did not provide information on their country of origin and these were omitted from analysis. Respondents were grouped according to the country they represent within ACMECS (country groups), as well as their professional background (stakeholder groups), as defined in van Dam and Junginger [28
]. The stakeholder groups were identified as:
Research (University or research institute) (42.3%)
Governmental institution (Ministries, policy-making institution, chambers) (26.9%)
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) (11.5%)
Private companies (Consulting, biomass or bioenergy business) (19.3%)
Values in square brackets indicate the share of total respondents within the respective stakeholder group. Overall, most respondents were associated with a research institution (42.3%) followed by a Governmental institution (26.9%), Private companies (19.2%), and NGO (11.5%). The distribution of responses among the country groups was relatively even: Cambodia (18%), Laos (16%), Myanmar (18%), Thailand (28%), and Vietnam (20%). The representation of stakeholder groups within countries was not equal. For instance, most respondents from Myanmar belonged to the NGO stakeholder group, whereas in Thailand, most were Researchers, and in Cambodia, most were from Governmental institutions. Participation from Laos and Vietnam was more balanced, with about 50% of the respondents from Research and the other half from the remaining groups. This represents the active bioenergy research and development institutions in each nation. Questionnaire responses were analyzed using IBM SPSS Statistics 23 and Microsoft Excel, using statistics based on ranks [32
], such as the Kruskal-Wallis-Test and the Friedman test for related samples.
3.4. Trends in Biomass Resources and Commodities over the Next 25 Years
We asked where biomass supplies would come from during the next 25 years. We found a common expectation that the contributions from natural forests would decrease (except in Thailand), while the contribution from both forest plantations and the agriculture sectors are expected to increase (Figure 3
). Respondents from Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos generally expected plantations to contribute more than their counterparts from Vietnam and Myanmar. We found no significant difference between stakeholder groups in most cases, except for biomass provision in natural forests at current (χ2
(3) = 12.256, p
= 0.007) and in 25 years (χ2
(3) = 11.247, p
= 0.010). In both cases, the group “Research” rated the provision generally lower than other groups, in particular the group “Governmental institution”.
To distinguish private from industry biomass consumption, we asked respondents to evaluate the importance of different feedstocks now and in 25 years separately for the private and the industry sector. The majority of respondents classified the current use of wood charcoal (84%) and fuelwood (82%) as “very important” or “important” in the private sector. Yet, these values are expected to decrease to 68% and 54% in this sector in the future. According to the expert’s opinion, woodchips, pellets, and liquid biofuels will play a more important role, but will remain behind traditional fuels, such as fuelwood and charcoal. The situation appears somewhat different in the industry sector, where woodchips (62%), pellets (48%), and fuelwood (42%) were currently seen as the main sources for bioenergy, even in countries with low significance, where FAO data are missing (Table 1
). The stakeholders concurred that woodchips (92%) would be the most important industrial feedstock in 25 years from now, followed by pellets (84%) and liquid biofuels (40%). We observed a tendency of higher fuel wood use in the private sector in countries with a lower HDI, but not in the industry sector. Within the traditional bioenergy sources, countries with a lower HDI generally use higher shares of fuelwood and more developed countries use charcoal instead. For Thailand, we found a strong correlation r(s) = 0.629, p
< 0.05 between the estimation of the current importance of fuelwood in the private and industry sector.
3.5. Responsible Institutions for Bioenergy Policy
We asked the experts which institutions are currently responsible for the development of bioenergy policy. In all countries, the Ministry of Energy was the most frequent answer, followed by the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture. Ministries responsible for the environment, trade, and science are less often involved. The situation seems to be perceived as rather stable, as nearly the same situation is expected in 25 years, except in the case of Myanmar, where the ministries for science and environment are expected to play a more important role.
3.6. Perceived Impacts of ACMECS Bioenergy Network
The impact of the network seems to depend on the development status and the biomass potentials of the respective ACMECS countries. However, in various presentations and summaries made during the three major workshops, it became clear that sustainable development and environmental concerns were on the minds of participants. Curiously, this was not strongly reflected in the formal NBDPs presented. We asked the experts where they expect the largest impact of the proposed network (Table 4
) based on the discussions during the previous meetings. A common conclusion at the workshops was that there are a range of issues where such a network can provide a positive impact. Climate Change mitigation was cited as the top impact, followed by sustainable resource use and technology transfer. Economic impacts were thought to be lower than these others.
3.7. Preconditions to Successful Adoption of National Bioenergy Development Plans
A key challenge facing any effort to install a regional bioenergy network and the supporting policy framework in an environment where a diversity of feedstocks is available, is understanding development stages and perceptions, as well as different responsibilities at the ministerial level. Consequently, we asked for preconditions that need to be met to successfully implement suggestions coming from the network and to ensure that the coordinated efforts lead to a coherent product.
Governmental incentives, support in planning of renewable energy systems, and a political commitment to bioenergy were seen to be very important by all countries. A suitable financing environment, strong energy markets, and a well-trained workforce were also seen to be important. Table 5
summarizes general data, such as biomass inventories, availability (accessibility) ranked in the middle, followed by various levels of collaboration and more specific data, as well as public acceptance. The most important factors tended to be identified consistently by various country and stakeholder groups. Consensus was more difficult to identify for other factors like improved resource inventory or land use data.
3.8. Most Significant Financing Mechanisms
Financing was highlighted by workshop attendees as one of the most crucial predictors of success, so we explored this by asking which would be the most significant financing institutions (Table 6
). Development banks were most commonly rated as being very important investors, followed by private firms and commercial banks. Country-specific scoring was observed. Thai respondents favored private rather than governmental institutions. Myanmar respondents favored a combined strategy with development banks for larger projects and microcredit models for smaller projects. Private corporations, development banks, and commercial banks are seen as the most important capital providers for the long-term. Activities within the United Nations program of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (UN-REDD+) are expected to provide a substantial amount of funds over the long-term, but not in the short-term. Respondents affiliated with NGOs identified development banks as critical, while Researchers thought private firms would be more important going forward. The role of development banks is perceived significantly differently between stakeholder groups, for the short-term (χ2
(3) = 9.827, p
= 0.020) and the long-term (χ2
(3) = 11.832, p
= 0.008), where respondents with a background at NGO’s identified these as more important. Members of the stakeholder group “research” were responsible for a significantly different view regarding the role of private firms in both short-term (χ2
(3) = 9.014, p
= 0.029) and long-term (χ2
(3) = 17.865, p
= 0.000) scores.
3.9. Risk Categories Effecting Successful Development of the Bioeconomy
Biomass and land, which produces it, are vulnerable to various kinds of risks ranging from natural disturbances to political and/or societal issues. We asked the experts to rank a number of pre-defined risks according to their likelihood of becoming a threat to the developing bioeconomy of the region.
The majority of respondents agreed that all of the pre-defined categories represent a moderate to high risk of disrupting the developing bioeconomy of Southeast Asia (Figure 4
). Monetary issues (decline or lack of funding) were seen as the category with the highest risk potential, followed by the degradation of natural resources and market price fluctuations. Thailand and Laos seemed to be more concerned about monetary and political stability and market price fluctuation than Vietnam and Myanmar. No significant differences were found between stakeholder groups.
Degradation of natural resources was identified as a major risk, especially in Cambodia and Laos. However, an associated risk, Climate Change, ranked behind other more immediate risks, such as funding security and market price fluctuations. Risks associated with environmental factors were recognized more in the questionnaire than they had been in the NBDPs developed prior to the third workshop. This may have resulted from the attention paid to these things during that workshop.
5. Conclusions and Policy Implications
We expect a rising demand for energy and consequently for its renewable generation in the Indochina region. Investment in intermittent energy sources, in particular wind power generation, has sharply increased in the area in recent years [42
], with the support of favoring political frameworks [43
]. Bioenergy can help to provide a continuous source of renewable energy and therefore reduce the vulnerability of increasing shares of intermittent sources. It was shown that the region is capable of producing various kinds of biomass in large amounts due to its geographic location and resulting favorable climate. Increased biomass production and consequently management of land has the potential of generating rural income. However, there are great risks associated with unsustainable use of resources followed by land degradation. A rising population, coupled with changes in diets, requires increasing amounts of food and feed production which may be a main issue in some regions [44
], and therefore needs to be carefully balanced with bioenergy production based on local assessments. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), among others, therefore supports studies to assess the nexus between sustainable bioenergy generation and food production [43
Based on the conclusions drawn from the 3rd Workshop [31
] and the questionnaire analysis, we propose a roadmap for further development of the ACMECS bioenergy network. The first project phase focused on setting up an expert network of stakeholders involved in biomass research and development, identification of knowledge gaps and the current status of biomass production and use, assessment of the development status and the need for capacity building, and identification of potential domestic and international markets. It was crucial to invite different stakeholder groups to jointly shape the network, in particular representatives of national ministries and other governmental institutions as the network has political weight from the beginning. Workshop participants agreed that this is essential for successful implementation. The academic counterpart, stakeholder group “Research”, ensures the provision of scientific background information and knowledge-based guidance of the network. The collaboration between policy-makers and scientists together with private companies and NGO’s was successful and necessary. This is well-demonstrated by the questionnaire results, where we found different perceptions between these stakeholder groups as demonstrated above in the disagreement over how much biomass will come from natural forests versus plantations. Researchers tend to be more reserved while policy makers (group “Governmental institutions”) see natural forests as a more important resource for biomass.
Bioenergy development plans must be guided by science, but also workable within social constraints. Strategic planning documents developed during workshops may not necessarily include all the issues necessary for “good policy.” Although the NBDPs developed here are a first and important step towards a regional network, issues such as climate change, sustainable development, and poverty alleviation were surprisingly not among the key issues initially identified. They were identified by a larger group of experts who subsequently answered the questionnaire. This suggests that the process must be evolutionary and inclusive. The fact that these issues surfaced after the SFBN formally joined the process suggests that engaging outside observers can sometimes lead to a more nuanced view of the problem and to more comprehensive solutions. Allowing anonymous input (as with this questionnaire) may also allow individuals to express views that may not be the same as those of the agencies for whom they work. It is necessary to place more emphasis on the nexus between bioenergy development and long-term environmental, economic, and social sustainability targets in future versions of these NBDPs and bioenergy guidelines and plans, particularly in the context of the forthcoming regional strategy. This might be more easily facilitated by independent stakeholder groups, such as researchers and NGO members, for instance.
We believe that this effort has provided new insights on differences, as well as commonalities and challenges, related to bioenergy development in Southeast Asia. An important outcome is the identification of deficits in knowledge, technology, and political frameworks, particularly those related to sustainability. VOS analysis showed that knowledge deficits are among the central issues in various topics. Based on these findings, we suggest the following further steps, which should be seen as integrative actions, i.e., although a temporal sequence is suggested, it contains a range of parallel tasks.
Baseline assessment and organization (Environmental, political and market information; consolidation of national committees; participatory approaches in rural areas).
Policy development and promotion (Development of national harmonized bioenergy policies; promotion of investment and financing strategies; standardization of commodities; development of domestic and international markets; political lobbying and improved collaboration among involved deciding institutions, such as ministries).
Implementation and development (Development of renewable energy systems at local scales; best management practices and guidelines; integration of policies into a regional strategy across country borders; policy enforcement strategies, development of a regional supply chain).
Evaluation and monitoring (Development of monitoring systems with feedback cycles; impact assessment; assessment of links to international carbon markets and emission reduction schemes; financial support by international schemes, e.g., REDD+).
We hope that this effort has added to our understanding of how a regional and coordinated network for bioenergy might advance in the next decades. However, there are still major challenges in ensuring a successful network implementation and efforts are being undertaken in all involved countries and among a diversity of stakeholders. The installation of the SFBN under the umbrella of IUFRO likely raised awareness of sustainability issues and therefore achieved its anticipated aims. We suggest further guidance of an interdisciplinary and international scientific board, such as IUFRO task forces and other initiatives with expertise in sustainable bioenergy development. Currently, a major shortcoming of the policy development process is the lack of broad participation, which is necessary to ensure public acceptance. If a major aim of the network addresses sustainable rural development, stakeholders need to be included to learn about specific demands and potential solutions in view of a regional network. Tools and infrastructure to install community management need to be provided, as well as funding sources, especially in the initial phase. We found that main issues in official NBDPs do not coincide with important issues discussed during the workshops and rated as being crucial by the involved experts. Consequently, we can conclude that future efforts need to place more emphasis on sustainable development and environmental quality, and there is a need for more intensive collaboration between stakeholders. Meetings and workshops were identified as being very successful instruments in shaping the agenda towards sustainability issues, partly by international expertise. We strongly suggest initiating project phase 2 with additional external funding to ensure ongoing development of this process. This includes the installation of a cross-boundary technology demonstration region where both new technologies and supply chains can be tested and adapted to local conditions. Over the long-term, it would have the potential to greatly contribute to energy security, sustainable development, and the reduction of poverty in rural areas in the ACMECS region.