Will Indonesia Get Serious on Carbon?


This past November, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s newly inaugurated president, made his long-awaited global debut at the Asia-Pacific Economic (APEC) forum in Beijing. For many, it was the first chance to see how this former furniture salesman and political outsider, who focused mostly on domestic issues during his historic presidential campaign, would perform as the leader of Southeast Asia’s largest country.

Jokowi, as he is commonly known, made headlines with his strong demeanor. Principally, his administration verbalized a commitment to have Indonesia join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but what made front pages in Indonesia was his first meeting with U.S. President (and former Jakarta resident) Barack Obama. However, Jokowi was noticeably absent from the biggest news to come out of APEC – the historic climate deal announced jointly by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, representing the world’s two largest emitters of carbon. Indonesia, the third largest carbon emitter and holder of, potentially, the world largest carbon reserves, would have been an obvious additional partner.

This is not new for what many consider one of the countries with the worst record of protecting its natural heritage. Indonesia’s forest fires make headlines when their smog reaches rich Singapore’s shoreline – and they aren’t just an occasional problem. Though one fifth the size of the United States and China by land area, Indonesia is now the world’s leader in deforestation, having overtaken Brazil. This is in spite of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s environmental commitments, and a $1 billion dollar investment by Norway in 2011 to preserve forests through the REDD+ program. Experts cite a mix of corruption, policy weakness, and poor oversight as the leading causes of this dissonance. That is why many environmental NGOs and activists supported Jokowi in the election, hoping that he would put Indonesia on a truly greener path. Entering 2015, which looks to be an historic year for the climate, it may be up to Jokowi and Indonesia to determine if the UNFCC climate talks in Paris next November are as momentous as many are hoping.

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The Road to #3 

Located in the world’s third major tropical forest region (the other two being the Congo and Amazon basins in Africa and South America), Indonesia’s thousands of islands contain some of the earth’s most precious biodiversity and natural resources. It should be no surprise that for most its history, Indonesia has primarily been a resources economy. What was sugar, rubber and spices during Dutch colonial times turned into timber, rice, minerals, and, more recently, palm oil and coal. All led to the destruction of the country biological heritage.

Over time, the scale of this destruction grew. As global demand for resources increased in the 2000s, chiefly a reflection of China’s insatiable appetite, Indonesia’s deforestation worsened. According to a report released by the University of Maryland in mid-2014, Indonesia lost more than 15.79 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012. Even more telling, the rate of deforestation accelerated, with more deforestation taking place in 2012 than any other year. Over the same period, Indonesia emerged as the world’s leading exporter of coal and palm oil.

That this was a problem was understood. Former President Yudhoyono spoke often about the environment, even giving a keynote address at the Forests Asia Summit this past year and making strong verbal commitments. Under his administration, though, Indonesia saw its deforestation rate increase from around 400,000 to 800,000 hectares a year, with some analysts feeling that even those numbers may be minimizing the true extent of the destruction. Even the moratorium announced in 2010, to much global fanfare, did little to stem deforestation, as highlighted in this chart from Mongabay.

Enter Jokowi, who won in part because voters felt he would be different than the talk-but-not-act politicians of Indonesia’s post-Suharto era. He became popular because, as governor of Solo in Central Java and, more recently, the capital Jakarta, he got things done. That was one reason environmentalists were heartened when Jokowi committed to reviewing palm oil plantation licenses and spoke in favor of protecting peat lands – which store huge stocks of carbon – while visiting Riau Province in Sumatra island, which has already seen 85 percent of its forests lost since Independence.

“We knew President Jokowi was serious right away,” said Longgena Ginting, Greenpeace Indonesia’s Country Director who accompanied him to Riau. “When bad weather aborted his initial helicopter flight…the president cancelled an invitation to speak at a palm oil company conference in order to stay an extra day in Riau and wait for the weather to clear. By his words and his actions, the president showed his commitment to a new form of government.”

It is a strong start, but, as Yudhoyono’s example shows, it will take a lot more than rhetoric to change Indonesia’s climate path. And in Jokowi’s own administration goals lies another problem. Even if Indonesia achieves its ambitious deforestation reduction goals and becomes the next Brazil, it may then just turn into what China was this past decade: A coal consuming giant. Though the news is about the massive drop in oil and gas prices globally, coal was the first to fall earlier in 2014. According to Aviva Imhof, Pacific Coal Network Coordinator at The Sunrise Project, this means Indonesia’s export markets will dry up: “The seaborne coal market is in structural decline. This is not just a low point in the cycle. The reason is China.” She adds that many analysts predict that in a few years China will stop importing coal altogether.

That is not necessarily a good thing for Indonesia’s carbon footprint. What Indonesia can no longer export, it hopes to burn domestically. The national development plans released by BAPPANAS, the Indonesian Planning Ministry, are calling for a massive increase in coal-fired power plants. Jokowi wants to stop deforestation, but so far he supports Indonesia’s growth in coal consumption.

This is worrisome. A report released by USAID stated that “Emissions from the energy sector are experiencing the largest rate of growth and are projected to overtake those from deforestation as the single largest emitting sector by 2030.” It is a cruel scenario – massive reduction in emissions from deforestation wiped out by increased coal emissions, keeping Indonesia firmly as a major polluter, possibly dragging the rest of developing South and Southeast Asia with it.

According to Imhof, Indonesia environmental groups, including Greenpeace and WAHLI, are calling for a cap on coal production, with subsequent reductions in the cap, and greater investment into renewable energies. As a tropical country in an active volcanic zone, Indonesia has ample solar and geothermal energy resources, which thus far, have not been promoted by either the Indonesian Government, or global funders like the World Bank or the ADB.

“There is a lot that could be done,” said Imhof. “There is significant geothermal potential, which needs Government support. Energy efficiency could be improved, especially in Java. Solar is untouched.”

There is much to be done in the next eleven months before the world meets in Paris. Unless priorities change, this time, it could be Indonesia playing the undercutting role China had at the last hopeful UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen back in 2009. That failure was devastating, and the recent APEC U.S.-China climate deal was one of the few items of good news in what have been five years of half-hearted initiatives and actions. While all eyes will be on the two major players this year, it may actually be Indonesia and Jokowi’s choice that determines whether the world moves forward on climate this year, or not.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.

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