Clearing the Skies: Addressing Jakarta’s Air Pollution Problem

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ASEAN Beat | Environment | Southeast Asia

Clearing the Skies: Addressing Jakarta’s Air Pollution Problem

Reducing the dense smog that settles over the Indonesian capital each dry season will require a multifaceted approach.

Clearing the Skies: Addressing Jakarta’s Air Pollution Problem
Credit: Depositphotos

Jakarta, Indonesia’s bustling capital, is a city known for its vibrant culture and economic opportunities. However, above the energy and dynamism lies the smog.  Indonesia’s capital recently topped the list as the world’s most polluted city and has consistently ranked among the 10 most polluted cities globally since May, according to data from IQAir. Amongst the city’s malls, slums, and glistening skyscrapers, more than 10 million people have to breathe polluted toxic air every day.

President Joko Widodo has stated that one of the solutions is to build a completely new capital, Nusantara, which is currently taking shape in a remote part of Kalimantan, where at least 16,000 civil servants, military and police are due to move. The reasons for the capital relocation include that Jakarta is gradually sinking into the sea, as well as the traffic congestion and pollution the capital faces, but what lies in store for the millions of Jakartans who remain, and what are the root causes of the pollution the capital faces? Moreover, are further plans to penalize motorists, as Jakarta’s officials have outlined, the answer?

The Smog Culprits

For anyone who has lived in Jakarta, the traffic jams that clog the city’s arteries are a constant hassle. As Jakarta has grown richer and urbanized, more cars and motorbikes have been added to the city’s streets and surrounding suburbs every year and vehicular emissions are one of the primary contributors to Jakarta’s air pollution. This has led to high levels of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases being released into the atmosphere, making jogging, cycling, or walking a nonstarter in Jakarta’s more built-up areas. Despite this, evidence suggests that vehicular pollution is only one factor and putting the focus on motorists above the other factors fails to address the wider problem.

Jakarta’s surrounding industrial zones emit pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and other polluting toxins to a much greater degree and, apart from some talk of carbon taxes, have so far been let off the hook. Factories in or near urban areas are significant contributors to pollution. Jakarta also still burns coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels. Inadequate emissions controls and monitoring have allowed these industrial pollutants to accumulate, further deteriorating air quality.

Construction activities and urban development too generate dust and pollutants. Unregulated construction practices, often involve little dust control. The mega skyscrapers and new tower blocks that are being built as Indonesia ascends the global economic stage often lack clear planning when it comes to environmental impact and controls in place to mitigate dust pollution are limited.

Another issue that is talked about regularly as a larger problem for the world but less so for Indonesians themselves in the context of climate change is deforestation. The rainforests of Kalimantan and Sumatra, the lungs of Indonesia, are being reduced at alarming rates, worsening the effects of climate change and leading to hotter dry seasons, which is also a factor the government turns to when it seeks to lay the blame at any other door than its own. The burning of Indonesia’s forests has also in the past furthered the haze over Jakarta. Furthermore, the city’s rapid expansion and concreting over its green spaces and woodlands has reduced the natural capacity of the area to absorb pollutants.

Scalable Solutions

Promoting sustainable transportation is perhaps the number one area where Jakarta could make quick progress, if it had the will. It is worth noting that Jakarta’s neighbors in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are decades ahead in providing excellent public transport to their citizens. Jakarta’s MRT, recently completed in some areas of the capital, doesn’t even cover the whole city, while Singapore has developed one of the best public transportation systems in the world with its MRT, showing that it can be done.

Expanding and enhancing public transportation systems like buses, trams, and commuter trains could incentivize residents to leave their cars at home. At the moment, the advances in the LRT and MRT simply aren’t enough to induce Jakartans to part with their vehicles and, as discussed, only cover limited areas of the city, leaving huge gaps in public transportation needs. Bus services, although improved from earlier in the decade, are also still limited. These are the fundamentals of public transportation and any visit to a city in Europe will testify to how vital a link they provide for citizens not wanting or not able to use a vehicle.

It’s a long way off for Jakarta, but promoting walking and cycling infrastructure, such as bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets, could also reduce the number of vehicles on the road. The fundamentals will need fixing before people will be willing to step out of air-conditioned cars, however.

Beyond the transportation fixes, a greater effort needs to go into urban planning and green spaces. Implementing reforestation and afforestation programs within the city to increase green cover and reduce pollution levels is one small step that could help signal a change in approach to the mega grey concrete sprawl that the city has become. Alongside this, integrating green building practices into urban development to reduce pollution should be a priority for the city’s officials.

Finally, instead of penalizing motorists and imposing regulations that are likely to be ignored or circumvented, offer incentives and subsidies for businesses and households to adopt cleaner technologies and energy-efficient practices and non-polluting habits. Incentives work better than punishments in changing behavior. The burning of rubbish, for example, is one area where the government could step in to provide incentives not to burn, such as by providing greater assistance with waste disposal.

Learning from other countries’ successes in combating pollution should also be on the agenda. Beijing, for example, used to face similar pollution problems to Jakarta but air quality has been improved by a crackdown on factories, a tightening of regulations on pollution levels, and the relocation of industrial facilities from the city.

In conclusion, air pollution in Jakarta is a pressing issue that threatens the health and well-being of its residents. Tackling this problem requires a multifaceted approach that combines regulatory measures, sustainable urban planning, and community engagement. By taking decisive action to reduce vehicular emissions, promote clean energy, and enhance green spaces, Jakarta can take significant strides toward clearing its skies and providing a healthier and more livable environment for its citizens. The time to address air pollution in Jakarta is now, for the benefit of current and future generations.