Balancing climate and development targets through a Water-Energy-Food Nexus approach: Lessons from Amazonia and Indonesia

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The tropical forests of Amazonia and Southeast Asia are crucial to global climate and conservation policy, and form the natural resource basis of some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

For countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Indonesia, ambitious development targets relying on the exploitation of natural resources have been the norm, with high environmental costs and biodiversity impacts. But increasing recognition that this will equate to higher long-term costs has spurred action towards more sustainable development models. This is evidenced by the emissions reduction targets adopted by these countries under the Paris Agreement, which will rely on dramatically reducing land use change.

However, balancing emission reduction commitments (land use change accounts for more than 50% of emissions in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Indonesia) with ambitious national development plans including infrastructure investments, agricultural production and renewable energy objectives, particularly relating to biofuels and hydroelectricity, will be extremely challenging.

In this context, the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus has emerged as an important conceptual framework for improving natural resource governance. By accounting for the complex interdependencies between water, energy, and food systems, such an approach can support decision-makers in identifying, evaluating and managing resource trade-offs and synergies across different economic sectors and actors.

To better understand the utility of this approach in supporting policymakers to develop more holistic sustainable development agendas, two CDKN funded projects engaged government and civil society stakeholders  in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Indonesia to use a WEF nexus lens to assess the coherence of, and gaps in, existing development and climate plans in these four countries.

Key lessons from applying the WEF Nexus approach

1. Resource trade-offs and synergies are highlighted in existing policy frameworks using a WEF Nexus lens.

Despite the historical abundance of land and water resources in tropical forest countries, growing demand coupled with pressures on resources from climate change and environmental degradation are increasing competition for natural resources. This presents real challenges for reconciling development targets across sectors that rely on the same resource base.  In particular, policy gaps and conflicts in agricultural production targets and forest conservation objectives exist in all four focus countries.

The WEF Nexus analysis carried out in Indonesia and Amazonia highlighted strategies to mitigate land use trade-offs and support multiple sectoral targets, including the prioritisation of degraded land for agricultural expansion, increases in agricultural productivity and energy-efficiency, and investment in forest conservation as ‘natural’ infrastructure for improving downstream water supply.

A cross-cutting issue is the need for granular land use planning to effectively manage these resource trade-offs and optimise land use for socio-ecological capacity. In this context, lessons can be drawn from Indonesia’s Spatial Planning Law, which provides a good framework for evidence-based land-use zoning of forests, water resources and agricultural land as well as the use
of incentives and disincentives to support implementation. Such advances are also notable in Peru and Brazil, with soil classification informing existing agricultural land-use planning. However, these efforts are undermined by challenges in implementing comprehensive land-use planning, and the availability and integration of data across different sectors.

Detailed findings from the analyses can be found here for Amazonia and Indonesia respectively.

2. A quantitative evidence base is critical to understand and manage trade-offs

The availability of quantitative evidence was a key factor in informing discussions on trade-offs. For example, in Aceh, a quantitative analysis of the area of land required to meet future oil palm and rice production targets against the area of suitable land available for development was a key input into discussions on food security under Aceh Parliament’s Sustainable Development Caucus. The findings highlighted a major shortfall of land for oil palm given current yields and the need for investment in increasing yields to avoid missing production targets and/or expanding into land where the development of oil palm is illegal, such as the Leuser Ecosystem.

However, there is an overall lack of the coherent and robust data sets needed to truly form the evidence-base for national WEF security policy-making. Analysis of potential resource trade-offs requires the quantification and aggregation of resource availability and resource demands across different users and sectors, as well as modelling future changes under different development and climate scenarios. In the case of Amazonia, there is a further need for a solid evidence base on the role of this biome and its sub-basins in underpinning national WEF security outside of the basin. Lastly, it is also important to acknowledge the temporality of any coherence and WEF nexus assessment given the changes in the economic, political and environmental landscapes over time. These data challenges underline the importance of programmes such as Indonesia’s One Map Initiative, which seeks to synthesise land use, tenure and other spatial data for the first time.

3. The WEF Nexus must be translated to local contexts and priorities

Building a common understanding on the WEF nexus concept, recognising the significant variations in the ways in which WEF security is conceptualised, is a key challenge that must be addressed in mobilising the broad coalition of actors that have a shared stake in the long-term sustainability of these countries’ forest landscapes.

To this end, presenting the WEF Nexus concept in the context, language and terminology of priority issues was useful. For example, in Aceh, framing it in terms of food security and disaster risk management, which were priority issues under the Sustainable Development Caucus, proved the most effective approach. In Brazil, Colombia and Peru, where the Amazon basin is only one biome and therefore often disconnected from national agendas, there is an urgent need to communicate its strategic importance – particularly regarding environmental services including water – in underpinning climate and development commitments.

Future for the WEF agenda in these regions

 The momentum shift from recent international climate change agreements and public-private financial pledges towards zero deforestation, as well as the explicit recognition of the need for forest conservation and water security in Sustainable Development Goals 6 and 15, offers an imperative for tropical forest governments to strengthen institutions and policy frameworks that can deliver both development and climate targets.

The growing community of actors using WEF nexus approaches in these regions, including the Nexus Dialogues for the Latin America and the Caribbean, provide a platform for further developing and sharing tools and best practices that can support the effective implementation of  this concept.

This article originally appeared on, and was written by GCP for, the CDKN website.