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Lockdown should have cleared up Jakarta’s air. Coal plants kept it dirty

The skyline of Jakarta clouded with air pollution. Image courtesy of Mac Coates/Flickr.

  • Cities around the world have seen an improvement in air quality as a result of lockdowns and restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jakarta has been a notable exception.
  • A new study shows that persistently high levels of PM2.5 air pollutant in the Indonesian capital come from coal-fired power plants within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the city.
  • Indonesia is set to build more coal-fired power plants in the vicinity of Jakarta in the coming years while maintaining emissions standards that are much laxer than regional or global standards.
  • Air pollution has a significant impact on public health and the economy, with studies linking it to higher rates of COVID-19 infection.

JAKARTA — Pollution from nearby coal-fired power plants is choking the citizens of Jakarta, slashing years off their life expectancy, and turning the city into one of the most polluted capitals in the world, a new report shows.

The U.S. Embassy’s monitoring stations, which track levels of harmful PM2.5 particles in the air, recorded 172 days with unhealthy air quality in 2019 — nearly half the year. That was up from 101 days in 2018.

A new report by the think-tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows that the congregation of coal plants surrounding Jakarta contributes to this worsening air quality.

“The number of good days are decreasing, while the number of unhealthy days have been increasing over the years,” CREA researcher Isabella Suarez said during the recent online launch of the report.

This year, mobility restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in drastically reduced traffic in Jakarta, but this hasn’t necessarily led to an improvement in air quality.

The environment ministry says air quality improved by 42% in mid-April, in the first two weeks after the imposition of a quasi-lockdown known as large-scale social restriction measures. But data from the U.S. Embassy show that PM2.5 concentrations actually increased from late March to early June.

That makes Jakarta an outlier among major world cities, with those cities seeing air quality improve significantly in line with a general decrease in urban activity. This suggests that the air pollution in Jakarta doesn’t only come from within the city — the environment ministry says vehicle emissions account for up to 80% of it — but also from outside the capital.

To prove the hypothesis, the CREA researchers analyzed air quality and wind patterns in Jakarta and its surroundings: Banten province to its west, and West Java province to its east and south. They found that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) declined in Jakarta, Banten and West Java during the lockdown in comparison to 2019 levels, due to a slowdown in emissions from major NO2 sources like vehicle and industrial emissions. However, they also found that PM2.5 concentrations increased from late March to early June, in line with the data from the U.S. Embassy’s monitoring stations.

This is because PM2.5 travels farther than NO2, suggesting that transboundary pollution from outside the city was a factor in the persistence of PM2.5 pollution.

The CREA researchers then looked at wind trajectories on the days when PM2.5 concentrations were especially high — more than 80 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), which corresponds to an air quality index of “unhealthy” — between 2017 and 2020. They found that the winds brought in pollutants from industrial estates and power plants in both Banten and West Java.

“When this modeling figure came out, we were very much surprised,” Suarez said. “It shows this clear relation between wind trajectory and emissions in certain areas.”

To further narrow down the sources of transboundary air pollution in Jakarta, the researchers focused on pollutants emitted from coal-fired power plants. They found that these pollutants were blowing into the city from plants up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. The main source was the Suralaya industrial estate in Banten. Home to five large coal-fired power plants, Suralaya is the most polluting industrial complex in all of Southeast Asia, based on satellite monitoring of emitted pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx).

In fact, the CREA report finds that PM2.5 levels are higher in Jakarta than in Banten, due to the winds carrying the particulate matter east. And with the Suralaya plants operating all year round, including during the partial lockdown earlier this year, air quality in Jakarta remains persistently poor.

“The concentration of pollution in the northernmost area of Banten where the Suralaya plants are located remains consistently high and contributes to air pollution in Jakarta in all months with highest impacts from December through April,” the report says.

PM2.5 pollution level in Jakarta from January 2020 to May 2020 based on U.S. Embassy air quality monitoring stations in Jakarta. Image courtesy of CREA.

Surrounded by coal plants

The source of the air pollutants in Jakarta may extend even farther afield than Banten and West Java, the researchers suggest. Regions such as Central Java to the east and South Sumatra and Lampung to the northwest also form part of Jakarta’s “airshed” — an area through which the same volume of air is frequently channeled or confined.

The concept is recognized elsewhere, and policymakers plan accordingly. In New Delhi, for instance, air quality measures target not just the city but the National Capital Region, a zone that extends 300 km (186 mi) beyond the city limits. In Beijing and Shanghai, too, the National Key Control Regions designated around these cities extend up to 500 km (310 mi) away.

“Unfortunately, wind trajectories and geography, the placement of Jakarta, is something we have no control over,” Suarez said. “But we do have control over the sources of this pollution.”

However, these outside sources are often overlooked in the policymaking process, with regulations for industrial emissions lax by global standards.

In 2019, the environment ministry issued new emissions standards that substantially strengthened the limits for new coal-fired power plants. But the ministry exempted new projects coming up around Jakarta from these standards, saying they already had power purchase agreements or permits in place that couldn’t be disrupted. The new standards also don’t apply to existing power plants.

This sets up a scenario of worsening air quality in Jakarta as the new plants come online and the existing ones continue to emit as normal.

Twenty percent of the 31.2 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity capacity planned by the Indonesian government will be located within 100 km of Jakarta. This is more than any other capital airshed in the world and stands to become the highest stationary source of air pollutant emissions. The polluting impact of these new coal plants will be the same as adding 10 million more cars to Jakarta’s streets.

Even before that happens, the current level of pollution is already taking a toll on public health.

“What we found is that health impacts of coal-fired power plants’ pollution on the Greater Jakarta population, operating within 100 km of the city, are responsible for an estimated 2,500 premature deaths in Greater Jakarta [annually], mainly from PM2.5,” Suarez said.

The researchers used the same methodology as that in a Harvard study on the burden of disease from coal plants in Southeast Asia.

The negative health impacts include new cases of asthma, asthma-related emergency hospital visits, premature births, increased prevalence of disabilities related to stroke, respiratory diseases and diabetes, as well as increased periods of sick leave.

“There’s a hidden cost to all of these,” Suarez said. “We found that 5.1 trillion rupiah [$348 million] every year, or 181,000 rupiah [$12] per person per year, is the cost of transboundary pollution from coal-fired power plants.”

Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu said the economic impact of air pollution extends beyond Jakarta.

According to an analysis by Greenpeace and CREA, high levels of PM2.5 in four Indonesian cities — Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Denpasar — caused 36 trillion rupiah ($2.46 billion) in economic losses to the country in the first half of this year. That amounts to a third of the nation’s entire health budget last year. The analysis didn’t take into account potential economic losses from other pollutants, such as NOx and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

“This shows that when air pollution is left [unmanaged], economic loss keeps going on and accumulates,” Bondan said. “It’s nearly eight times the Jakarta health budget. When we analyzed the data, we were astounded because this is merely from one pollutant [PM2.5].”

CREA lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta said these losses took various forms, including loss of productivity and income as a result of sick leave.

“People are sick more, so there’s a direct economic cost, loss of income, lower productivity,” he said. “When you have to take your child to the hospital, there’s also a loss of income. And new cases of child asthma. One big impact here is preterm birth. So when babies are born prematurely, their average health care cost over their childhood is much higher.”

NO2, S02 and PM2.5 concentrations over Jakarta on the “worst days” of pollution. Image courtesy of CREA.

Pollution and the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the impact of air pollution even more pronounced. A study by Harvard researchers shows that people in U.S. counties with long-term exposure to high PM2.5 levels are 8% more likely than residents of less polluted areas to die from COVID-19, which causes respiratory complications.

A study of 324 Chinese cities also linked high PM2.5 and NO2 levels to an up to 22% increase in COVID-19 cases. Another study found that while city lockdowns across China resulted in lower air pollution levels, PM2.5 concentrations were still more than four times higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe. The authors of that study linked the persistently high PM2.5 figures to the burning of coal for heating.

Despite all these findings, Indonesia is still on track to add more coal power to its grid: it was the only country in Southeast Asia to start construction of a new coal-fired power plant in the first six months of 2019, according to a report from Global Energy Monitor.

Climate activist and former U.S. vice president Al Gore raised the issue at last year’s U.N. climate talks in Madrid. He noted that Indonesia had become an outlier in Southeast Asia due to its plans to build new coal plants. He called for Indonesia to move away from coal to renewable energy. And though he welcomed Indonesia’s commitment to reduce its emissions, he said the country was still too deeply invested in coal: Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of thermal coal and accounts for almost 90% of Southeast Asia’s coal production.

CREA’s Suarez said the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for Indonesia to start phasing out its coal plants and moving to renewable energy sources. The various restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus have slowed the movement of workers and material, resulting in seven coal-fired power plant projects being delayed indefinitely.

“As we’re talking about new normal or build back better around the world, we can look at other alternatives that don’t leave us open to these kinds of pollution and these types of impact on the health and environment,” Suarez said.

Gore, speaking in a recent discussion on “Climate Change and the Great Reset” with Singaporean bank DBS, said transitioning to renewables would create more jobs, thus also helping economies recover from the pandemic. He cited the U.S., where he said the two fastest-growing jobs were solar installer and wind turbine technician.

“[T]he most cost-effective way to create the new jobs and economic progress we’re going to need after this pandemic is through a green stimulus program,” Gore said. “The clean energy transition was already well underway before the pandemic and had already become one of the biggest creators of new jobs. If we make the right policy choices in the aftermath of this pandemic, we can further unleash and accelerate this sustainability revolution that is very jobs intensive.”

View of Suralaya coal power plant in Cilegon city, Banten Province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace.

Improving standards

Besides phasing out coal, the Indonesian government should also revise its air quality standards to meet WHO guidelines, Suarez said.

Exposure to PM2.5 of more than 25 μg/m3 over a 24-hour period is considered unhealthy by the WHO; Indonesia’s national standard has a limit of 65 μg/m3.

Other action the government can take includes applying the updated 2019 emissions standards to all planned coal power plants, and working with local governments, including those of Banten and West Java, to ensure that efforts in one area are not undermined by lack of effective pollution reduction elsewhere.

“All power plants and industrial facilities in Jakarta’s multi-province airshed contribute to pollution in Jakarta,” the CREA report says. “Given the cross-province reach of stationary source emissions in western Java, the provinces of Jakarta, Banten and West Java should collaborate on setting emissions control targets.”

Reducing air pollution in Jakarta and its surroundings to meet the WHO guideline would result in tremendous health benefits, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), a metric developed by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) that converts particulate air pollution into its impact on life expectancy.

The index shows that 11 million residents of Jakarta would gain an average of 4.8 years in life expectancy if particulate pollution met the WHO guideline. In the West Java cities of Bogor, Bandung and Bekasi, and the Banten city of South Tangerang, residents would gain about 5 years.

The AQLI data is in line with recent air quality research done by Duke University and NASA, which found that reducing air pollution in the U.S. saves more money than it costs. The benefits gained from avoided deaths, avoided health care spending, and increased labor productivity amount to more than $700 billion per year, the researchers estimate. Coupled with the fact that clean energy has gotten cheaper, this should be more than enough financial justification to pay for the energy transition, advocates say.

“The air quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” Rebecca Saari, an air quality expert at the University of Waterloo, told Vox. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over.”

CREA’s Myllyvirta said the benefits of reducing air pollution went far beyond gains in life expectancy.

“What would it mean for Jakarta, if Jakarta realizes clean air?” he said. “You would have healthier people, lower health care costs, you’d have higher economic productivity, higher presence at work, and the city would be more attractive for businesses, for skilled professionals, for homebuyers.”

Myllyvirta said it’s important to highlight these gains.

“We hear a lot about how much it would cost to install better filters on coal-fired power plants or to require cars to comply with highest standard,” he said, “but these costs of air pollution are just as real and we know how to reduce them, and we know how to solve air pollution.”


Banner image: The skyline of Jakarta clouded with air pollution. Image courtesy of Mac Coates/Flickr. 


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