A Swedish solution for Southeast Asia’s smog crisis

What seems to be the major reason for the haze story repeating itself each year, is agriculture fires on peatlands in the Indonesian archipelago. Much of the land is being burned to clear the way for palm oil plantations (as palm oil is in increasing demand especially by China and India).

Photo: CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)

Peatlands are wetlands with a thick waterlogged organic soil layer (peat) made up of dead and decaying plant material. When these are drained and put on fire it is very difficult and costly to extinguish the fires, and practically impossible for Indonesia to do so. The El Nino phenomenon has just made matters worse. And as wood and peat are incompletely burned in the open huge quantities of particles are released in the air, creating the haze.

CO2 emissions from the smog in 2015 are enormous, and calls to decide on proper actions for the long term that can prevent the fire and haze are all over the media. Focus should include actions that provide the poor with alternatives to fire-based agriculture on peatlands.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in late October reiterated his intention to move toward a stronger moratorium on peatland development. The government will look to restore some of the desiccated swamps and block canals used by agribusiness to drain them. Restoration of degraded peatlands will begin immediately and cultivation on peatlands are to be reduced, said the statement.

Niels Madsen

Meanwhile, a Swede, Niels Madsen, has brought forward an interesting proposal that tackles the issue head-on and generates transformation.

He has written about the Swedish Forestry Model in the capacity of his background within forestry, including 15 years working for the Swedish company STORA, followed by involving himself within the REDD+ efforts on Sumatra and specifically in Aceh.

Sweden is among the countries that used to have the same problem, and how that was dealt with actually forms a model for a solution, with all the technologies available today.

Sweden’s northern cities used to suffer from winter “haze” due to wood being burned in small, inefficient fireplaces that heated our homes. Many particles were released into the air, creating smoke.

Giving “carrots” was the most effective method to solve this, writes Niels: “We made it profitable for business to burn wood efficiently and distribute the heat to industry and households.”

It became profitable to burn bioenergy/wood thanks to a combination of incentives and taxes.

Also, preferential rates were given for power generated from renewable resources.

Many Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants were set up, where the heated water produces steam that generates power, while the residual heat is distributed in district heating networks at high efficiency ratio; reducing CO2

emissions and improving profitability.

Today, 30% of Sweden’s energy supply comes from renewable biomass, on par with the energy from fossil oil and coal. As a result the country doesn’t have haze anymore and is more self-sufficient with its energy supply. Sweden is one of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita globally.

Photo: CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)

Also, its tax on fossil fuels and subsidies for renewable energy has not hurt Sweden’s economic growth, while CO2 emissions have been reduced by more than 25 per cent since 1990 while real GDP has grown with 60 per cent.

In Southeast Asia an adapted “Swedish Solution” would be the best scenario, according to Niels’ proposal, which is to make it profitable to use biomass for energy rather than wasting it and creating haze in the process. Indonesian farmers would as a result be given a good reason not to burn land to make a living.

Farmers could instead collect the biomass/wood, dry it and make it into wood pellets (compressed wood).

“Pellets can be burned instead of coal. It is a renewable clean fuel that will not produce haze. Allocate subsidies to promote bioenergy from haze-generating areas. Or even better, put a carbon tax on fossil fuel CO2 emissions and allocate it to this cause. Wealthy countries should help to funds as part of their international COP agreements and commitments to financially support.”

If biomass delivered at collection centres is paid for an attractive alternative to burning is there. The operator buying the biomass will dry, pelletize and deliver the pellets to coal power plants.

“Existing coal power plants can simply use biomass pellets as substitution for coal. Pelletizing biomass is preferably done at existing CPO factories and pulp and paper mills. Higher efficiency is achieved by adding a turbine to the steam production. Hot steam is needed in the process of making crude palm oil, pulp and paper and now also to dry biomass before pelletizing. The power is used for local machinery and sold to vicinity, replacing the typical high cost diesel generators. Similar cleanliness and high efficiencies as generated in Sweden’s CHP plants can be reached.”

Photo: CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)

There are many coal fired power plants in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia that could utilise wood pellets, says Niels. And technical adaptation is minimal. However, coal-powered utilities will only buy these “haze reduction pellets” when it is profitable. Only subsidies or carbon tax can pay for the difference as coal is so cheap.

“Bioenergy is more expensive than coal but it does not only reduce our carbon footprint, it will stop the haze that costs us billions of dollars and threatens our health and our wellbeing. It will also benefit smallholder farmers.”

The cost of biomass-energy should be lower than in Sweden thanks to abundance of biomass and lower costs, he thinks. The Swedish success model can be adapted to local conditions, and succeed in the area.

“This is an important simple step. In the end we must also preserve the rainforest, not only convert to agricultural land. A win-win situation must be created with local people, using carrots as well as whips. Let’s get rid of the haze!”

Footnote: Niels, together with his wife and daughter have started the Mahi-Mahi Resort on the island Simeulue in Aceh. It is financed with Green Bonds where portion of the coupons go to protect endangered turtle’s nesting places.

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