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For Indonesian presidential hopefuls, burning coal is business as usual

A group of locals affected by coal-fired power plants across Indonesia demand presidential candidates to end coal in Jakarta. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

  • Indonesia relies for more than half of its electricity on coal-fired power plants, and has plans to build dozens more in the coming years, bucking a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy.
  • Activists have called on President Joko Widodo and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, to address the issue at their presidential debate on Feb. 17.
  • Neither camp, however, has made any meaningful policy gestures on environmental issues, with a Widodo campaign spokesman even disputing the science on coal’s central role in climate change as merely “an opinion.”
  • Instead, the incumbent, who enjoys a solid lead on his challenger, looks set to deepen Indonesia’s reliance on coal as the primary energy source.

JAKARTA — Usman’s been glued to the TV news lately. A young fisherman living in Batang, along the northeastern coast of Indonesia’s main island of Java, Usman is closely following this year’s presidential race.

While much of the country has been caught up in the daily trading of barbs between the campaign teams of President Joko Widodo and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, on a range of issues, the one thing Usman wants them to address is coal.

“We’ve been waiting at every debate and campaign message on TV for a single word about coal-fired power plants,” he said in Jakarta. “We really hope there’s not just a program to develop renewable energy in other places, but also to phase out coal power plants and change them to renewables so that we’re not threatened by coal plants.”

Usman is part of a fishing community in Batang whose livelihoods are under threat from a power plant being built in their area. The 2,000-megawatt facility, billed as the largest project of its kind in Southeast Asia, has faced delays and protests over its potential impact on local and wider ecosystems, but remains on track to be completed by 2020.

Usman (right) holds a picture of a child whose health affected by a coal-fired power plant. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

‘Hanging by a thread’

Batang’s marine ecosystem has long supported thriving small-scale fisheries, thanks to the coral reefs and lush mangroves that host a wealth of marine life.

But since construction of the plant commenced in 2017 — delayed from 2010 due to community protests and residents holding out against selling their land for the project — the fishers say they are already feeling its impacts.

Fish catches have declined, and dredging waste pumped out to sea has damaged fishing equipment, they say.

In an effort to bring the issue into the national spotlight, Usman visited the campaign headquarters of the two candidates in Jakarta on Feb. 13. He was joined by farmers from elsewhere around Indonesia, who have lost their lands and livelihoods to coal-fired power plants. Their hope is that the issue will warrant at least a mention in the nationally televised debate scheduled for Feb. 17, where two of the topics for discussion will be energy and the environment.

“We can only hope in this political year there will be a hero who can help us maintain the environment and the ocean in the future for us fishermen as well as our grandchildren who will inherit the ecosystem of the sea,” Usman said.

He added, “It seems like our future is hanging by a thread.”

The group was accompanied by activists from various Indonesian NGOs, all of them concerned about the impact of coal-fired plants on local communities, and all pushing for the candidates to take a stand on phasing out the burning of coal in Indonesia.

Greenpeace activists and fishermen occupy the piling barges which operates in East Roban waters, Batang, Central Java on March 30, 2017. Those activists from Break Free Coalition, consisting of Greenpeace, WALHI and JATAM unfurl a big banner that calls for a termination to the construction of the coal fired power plant. Batang coal power plant is claimed to be the largest in Southeast Asia with a capacity of 2000 megawatts. It will release around 10.8 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere – equals to total carbon emissions of Myanmar in 2009. Image by Micka Bayu Kristiawan/Greenpeace.

Deadline 2030

If there was ever a right time to end coal use, it’s now, said Tata Mustasya, regional climate and energy campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Once a coal-fired power plant is built, he said, it will remain in operation for the next 40 to 50 years. In that time, it will have a devastating impact on local populations and ecosystems, polluting the air and water, and churning huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Coal-fired power plants release more greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced than any other electricity source. That makes the burning of coal the single biggest contributor to human-driven climate change, accounting for 46 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide and 72 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector.

The Batang plant, once up and running, will emit 10.8 million tons of CO2 equivalent every year, along with pollutants that include neurotoxins such as mercury that can have severe repercussions on public health and the environment.

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest producers of coal, and also one of its biggest consumers. A total of 39 coal-fired power plants are currently under construction. Another 68 have been announced, of which 15 are in the process of obtaining environmental approval, according to data from the research group CoalSwarm.

Many of these projects haven’t secured financing yet, so it’s not too late to cancel them outright, activists say.

“We see this year’s presidential election as a moment of opportunity to put an end to coal-based dirty energy and to start moving toward clean renewable energy,” said Tata, who accompanied the fishers and farmers on their visits to the campaign headquarters.

He said it was imperative for Indonesia to transition to renewable energy sources, given the trend for power generation to account for the biggest share of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The power industry is responsible for 34 percent of Indonesia’s total emissions at present, but is on track to hit 58 percent by 2030. (Forest clearing is currently the country’s biggest source of emissions.)

Indonesia is already the world’s fifth-largest GHG emitter. Any effort to reduce its emissions should address the energy sector, Tata said.

The 2030 milestone is significant. That’s when, according to a landmark report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), catastrophic climate-driven consequences will start unfolding unless the global temperature rise is kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

The report also emphasizes the need to phase out the burning of coal in order to stay within that limit.

President Widodo acknowledged the IPCC report during his now-famous speech at last year’s joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, when he made an analogy to the popular TV series “Game of Thrones.”

He said “the evil winter is coming” as he reminded fellow heads of state of the mounting global issues that required nations to stick together instead of competing against each other.

“The most important thing is the mutual power to defeat the evil winter so that global disaster won’t happen, so that the world doesn’t turn into a wrecked barren land that causes suffering to all of us,” Widodo said at the meeting in Bali.

While the reference was largely to the U.S. trade war against China, Widodo identified climate change as another global threat that called for wider cooperation. He said the window of opportunity to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius was extremely small, and said global investment in renewables needed to be 400 times greater than at present to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

The Celukan Bawang coal-fired power plant has been blamed by advocacy group Greenpeace for damaging the environment, public health and the local economy. Environmental and health damage are a major concern for coal plants in Indonesia. Image by Alit Kertaraharja/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Even more coal

Yet Indonesia’s energy policy remains at odds with not only the country’s commitment to reduce its own emissions by 29 percent by 2030 — it is also out of step with global trends, where renewable energy is overtaking coal.

At least 21 countries have already committed to phasing out coal-fired power plants before 2030. Some financial institutions have also committed to no longer financing coal projects.

But the Widodo administration has gone in the opposite direction, continuing to bet on coal as Indonesia’s main source of electricity. Coal is expected to supply 54.4 percent of the country’s electricity by 2025, according to state-owned utility PLN. Renewables will account for 23 percent of the energy mix, up from 12 percent in 2017. After 2025, coal will get a boost to 58.5 percent of the energy mix.

For good measure, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources says coal will remain Indonesia’s main source of energy until 2050.

Activists say countries like China and Japan, vying for influence in Southeast Asia, are enabling this coal spree by throwing money at coal mining and power plant projects. Both China and Japan are among the biggest investors in coal projects in the world; in Indonesia, they’ve underwritten nearly 4,000 megawatts of coal power plants in the past eight years, according to an analysis by the Association of Ecological Action and People’s Emancipation (PAEER), an NGO. By 2022, that number will more than double to nearly 9,000 megawatts.

“Japanese and Chinese companies’ involvement in coal-fired plants helps to dictate the energy landscape in Indonesia,” PAEER researcher Jasman Simanjuntak said. “In coming years, their involvement in coal will increase. But the destructive impact that goes along with it also needs to be considered.”

The $4 billion Batang project, for instance, is funded by the state-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), along with several other Asian banks. The plant also has an indirect connection to the election. The developer is a joint venture between two Japanese companies — utility and power plant operator J-Power and the Itochu Corporation — and Adaro Energy, one of Indonesia’s largest coal companies. Sandiaga Uno, the running mate to Prabowo, served until 2015 on Adaro’s board of directors and continues to hold shares in the miner through his investment holding company.

Coal that fell off a barge washes up on a beach. Indonesia will still rely on coal for foreseeable future to generate power, drawing condemnation from environmentalists. Image by Junaidi/Mongabay Indonesia.

No sense of urgency

Activists see the presidential debate on Feb. 17, and to a lesser extent the three more scheduled before the April 17 election, as the perfect chance for both Widodo and Prabowo to commit to an ambitious climate plan, including the phasing out of coal.

But there appears to be little appetite among the rival campaigns to broach the issue, much less tackle it head-on. Widodo’s camp has mentioned environmental issues just 16 times out of the total 865 mentions it raised on social media so far in 2019, according to monitoring site For Prabowo’s team, the environment warranted just 14 out of 988 mentions. For both candidates, the economy and human rights were much more important talking points.

Both candidates need to take the bold stand of declaring an end to coal burning, said Leonard Simanjuntak, country director of Greenpeace Indonesia. He said this would put Indonesia in the same ranks as countries like Germany, which has pledged to completely stop the operation of coal-fired plants in the country by 2038. Coal provides nearly 40 percent of Germany’s power, compared with 5 percent in the U.K., which plans to phase the fuel out entirely by 2025.

Arif Budimanta, a spokesman for Widodo’s campaign, said it would take a long time for Indonesia as a developing country to shift to renewables as its main source of energy. Industrialized nations like the U.K. have had centuries to wean themselves off coal, he said.

“If you look at the industrial revolution in the U.K., their main energy source was coal,” he said. “But as the U.K. became more developed over 200 years, it was able to reduce its reliance on coal for energy. Yet even now, it still uses fossil fuel.”

Greenpeace’s Leonard said this argument — that developing countries should be allowed to continue using fossil fuels because developed ones got rich doing the same — was a well-worn but invalid point.

“The problem is we don’t have 200 years [to use coal],” he said. “That’s something that we have to accept. We only have 12 years. The science is clear. And that’s not just the responsibility of developed countries.”

Sonny Mumbunan, a senior environmental economist at the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, said the sense of urgency prompted by the IPCC report and a series of climate change-related disasters across the globe wasn’t shared by Indonesia’s leaders.

“The metaphor of our planet burning hasn’t reached us yet, even though we don’t have the luxury of time,” he said. “We only have 12 years, that’s just three World Cups away. Time will fly [before we know it].”

He said neither candidate had responded to the IPCC report with anything like an ambitious plan to tackle climate change.

“It’s a shame, because the role of this year’s presidential election is very strategic in climate change, unlike previous elections,” Sonny said. “Whoever is elected doesn’t have the luxury of time on his hand [to address climate change].”

Locals who are affected by coal power plants around Indonesia gather during a protest in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources office in Jakarta, Indonesia. They’re demanding the government to switch from coal to renewable energy. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Cost and development

The government has long argued that coal is the cheapest and quickest way to generate the electricity needed to fuel Indonesia’s economic growth. When Widodo took office in 2014, he announced an ambitious push to add 35,000 megawatts of power generation to the national grid over the coming years. (The initial target date was 2019, but the government now says it may take until 2024 to get that full capacity on line.)

Fabby Tumiwa, executive director of the Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR), an NGO, says the government is too focused on the short-term goal of providing cheap energy to households by subsidizing electricity from coal plants, instead of thinking long-term by developing renewables.

The situation is likely to remain unchanged should Widodo, who enjoys a 20-point lead over Prabowo in most polls, wins the election. Campaign spokesman Arif said there were three parts to Widodo’s vision and mission statement for energy. Developing renewable energy is one of them. But Widodo also aims to increase the production and consumption of fossil fuel-based energy to develop the economy, and to increase the availability and accessibility of electricity, Arif said.

“Based on cost, coal is still the cheapest for Indonesia and the most readily available,” he said. “We don’t need to import it.”

He also questioned the global consensus that the burning of coal is the biggest contributor to climate change, calling it simply “an opinion.”

“But we can’t forget that there are also the aspects of affordability and accessibility,” Arif said. “And it’s not just about a matter of availability, but it’s also about willingness to pay.”

A new study by Greenpeace on the economic feasibility of fossil fuel energy and renewable energy in Indonesia shows that while the initial investment costs in coal plants might be cheaper than in renewables such as geothermal, over the long run the operating and maintenance costs for the latter were much lower. And as costs for renewable energy get cheaper with technological developments and scale, the cost of coal-based electricity is expected to surpass them in 2021 in Indonesia.

Arif, though, said the government was looking at developing “green coal” to address concerns about emissions.

Green coal, also known as clean coal, refers to technology that’s meant to improve the efficiency of burning coal, as well as to capture the gases that would otherwise be emitted, including CO2, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

But these technologies remain prohibitively expensive, and could increase the cost or running coal-fired plants in Indonesia by a factor of 15, according to the Greenpeace study. That would blow out any cost savings the government claims it can make by opting for coal utilities over renewables.

“There’s no such thing as cheap energy from coal when you’re using clean coal technology,” said Hindun Mulaika, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

Banner image: A group of locals affected by coal-fired power plants around Indonesia stages a protest in front of the headquarters of President Joko Widodo’s campaign team in Jakarta. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

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