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Indonesian president slammed for ‘wait-and-see’ approach on climate action

Young protesters march during a climate strike in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September 2019. Image by Lusia Arumingtyas/ Mongabay Indonesia.

  • During last month’s climate summit of world leaders, top emitters announced more ambitious climate targets in a bid to combat climate change.
  • Missing from that list was Indonesia, whose president, Joko Widodo, instead called on industrialized countries to set an example for other nations to follow.
  • Climate and policy experts in Indonesia say his failure to announce a bold target for achieving net-zero emissions is a missed opportunity for Indonesia to show global leadership based on its success in reducing deforestation.
  • They also criticized a government proposal, not yet officially endorsed by the president, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070 — 20 years later than most other major emitters.

JAKARTA — Experts have criticized Indonesian President Joko Widodo for not announcing a more ambitious climate target at last month’s leaders’ summit called by U.S. President Joe Biden.

During the two-day virtual summit, held in conjunction with Earth Day, a number of world leaders pledged to do more and act faster on climate change. Among the countries represented at the summit was Indonesia, one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, which come mainly from deforestation and forest fires.

In his speech to fellow leaders, President Widodo said Indonesia was very serious about tackling climate change and called on the global community to take concrete actions and “lead by example.”

A growing number of countries have announced targets to achieve carbon neutrality, where any residual emissions of greenhouse gasses are canceled out by measures to remove them from the atmosphere, by 2050.

The most recent one is Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro announced during the summit that the country would reach emissions neutrality by 2050, his most ambitious environmental goal yet.

Widodo said Indonesia welcomed such targets, but called on industrialized countries to set an example before less-industrialized ones like Indonesia could follow suit. Indonesia itself plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2070.

“Developing countries will adopt similar ambitions if developed countries support and are being credible with their commitments,” Widodo said. “The fulfillment of commitments and support by developed countries are indeed a necessity.”

He stopped short of announcing a more ambitious climate target, and gave with no definitive deadline for when Indonesia would start phasing out coal, on which the nation is still heavily reliant.

The lack of announcements drew criticism from observers.

Nadia Hadad, program director of the environmental NGO Madani, said this was a real missed opportunity for Indonesia to show global leadership.

“The Leaders Summit on Climate should have been a chance for Indonesia to lead other countries in the world in tackling the climate crisis, and a chance for Indonesia to announce a carbon neutrality [target] of 2050 as targeted in the Paris climate agreement,” she said.

Fabby Tumiwa, executive director of Indonesian policy think tank the Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR), questioned Widodo’s omission of any mention of coal in his speech.

“The president focused too much on the forestry and land use sector by [emphasizing] reducing deforestation, [rehabilitating] mangrove and peatland,” he said. “That’s good, but we know that our future emissions [will come primarily] from the energy sector, and it wasn’t stated [in the speech] on what Indonesia will do for the energy sector.”

Arief Wijaya, senior manager for climate and forests at the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, also criticized the absence of a more ambitious carbon-neutrality goal by Indonesia during the summit.

“It’s a shame when other countries, even Brazil, which we know doesn’t have a good track record under Bolsonaro’s leadership in handling deforestation in the Amazon, turned out to announce a more ambitious commitment,” he told Mongabay.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for more than 60% of Earth’s largest rainforesthit a 12-year high in 2020 as Bolsonaro rolled out policies undermining forest protections, such as handing over deforestation and fire monitoring duties from civilian agencies to the military.

Indonesia, by contrast, home to the world’s third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest, has recorded a decline in deforestation over the past five years, hitting a historic low in 2020. The government has credited its various policies prohibiting forest clearing for the decline.

“Through policies, empowerment, and law enforcement, the rate of deforestation in Indonesia is at its slowest in the last 20 years,” Widodo said. “The moratorium on natural forest and peatland conversion has covered 66 million hectares [163 million acres], larger than the size of the U.K. and Norway combined. Forest fires have fallen by 82% at a time when some regions in the Americas, Australia and Europe experienced the largest increase.”

In addition to touting Indonesia’s successes in reducing deforestation, Widodo should also have announced a bolder climate target, said Yuyun Harmono, climate justice campaign manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

“He said that our deforestation and forest fires are declining, but there’s no announcement of net-zero emissions target,” he said. “Even Brazil, where deforestation and forest fires are increasing, is courageous” in announcing a definitive carbon-neutrality goal.

WRI’s Arief said he suspects the government is fearful that a more ambitious timeline might hurt economic growth, especially at a time when Indonesia is trying to emerge from a slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sonny Mumbunan, an economist with the University of Indonesia’s Research Center for Climate Change, said a failure to act on climate change would be far more detrimental to economic recovery. A rise in the average global temperature of 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) about pre-industrial levels would translate into a 2% reduction in GDP, he said.

“Imagine if [our economy] declines by 2%, wouldn’t it give a headache to Joko Widodo if 600,000 jobs were lost as a result due to temperature [rise]?” Sonny said.

He also cited a 2019 report by Indonesia’s development planning ministry, Bappenas, which shows how the country could reap tremendous economic benefits — an average of 6% GDP growth per year until 2045 — if it transitions into a low-carbon economy by phasing out fossil fuel and reducing deforestation, among other measures.

“There’s an economic argument to be made for us to achieve net-zero emissions faster,” Sonny said.

Children and teenagers demand more climate action during a climate strike in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September 2019. Image by Lusia Arumingtyas/Mongabay Indonesia.

Net zero

While Widodo hasn’t publicly announced when Indonesia plans to achieve net-zero emissions, the environment ministry recently proposed 2070 as the earliest year for reaching carbon neutrality.

Critics have panned the projection, calling it woefully inadequate to curb global warming, given that most other major emitters have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

“Based on [analysis from] the Climate Action Tracker, we are among the countries with highly insufficient [emission reduction] target,” said Muhamad Ramdan Andri Gunawan Wibisana, an environmental law professor at the University of Indonesia. “If we proceed with this, global warming can reach 3-4° Celsius [5.4-7.2°F]. Based on that, a 2070 net-zero emissions deadline is too far off, it should be earlier than that.”

Emil Salim, Indonesia’s first environment minister, said even aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050 is not enough to stave off the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

This March, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 50% above pre-industrial levels, a record high despite a dip in emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, described the continued rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide as something “like a human meteorite hitting Earth.”

That’s what makes a net-zero goal insufficient, Emil said, calling for an even more ambitious negative emissions target.

“Because greenhouse gases remain for thousands of years [in the atmosphere], the strategy for net-zero emissions is not enough,” he said. “It only delays the explosion of the impacts from greenhouse gases.”

Only two countries in the world currently have net negative greenhouse gas emissions, which means they absorb more than they emit: Bhutan in the Himalayas, and Suriname in South America. A failure by Indonesia and other countries to follow the example of Bhutan and Suriname could render the planet inhospitable, Emil said.

“It means our grandchildren who are less than 5 years old now, they’ll be in their 80s in 2100 and they’ll face a 4-8° Celsius [7.2-14.4°F] temperature rise,” he said. “Maybe that’s what we call a hell on earth.”

While Indonesia’s environment ministry says 2070 is the most realistic scenario for net-zero emissions, Bappenas is proposing four different scenarios with different deadlines for achieving the same goal: 2045, 2050, 2060 and 2070.

All four scenarios have been mapped out by the agency and will be presented to Widodo to decide on, according to Bappenas Minister Suharso Monoarfa. He said the sooner Indonesia could achieve carbon neutrality, the better it would be for the economy, due to higher productivity and lower externalities.

Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investments, also said Indonesia should aim for an earlier deadline.

“Indonesia has to be able to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050,” he said during a meeting on April 12.

Bappenas environmental department head Medrilzam said there’s still time for Indonesia to decide on a date.

“We still have until Glasgow,” he said, referring to the next U.N. climate summit scheduled for November this year. “Don’t let us be pressured by powerful nations because no matter how, there are common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. We have to underline that. But this climate problem is also a concern for us and our grandchildren.”

WRI’s Arief said it’s a good sign that there are differing opinions within the government, as it means there’s still an opportunity for Widodo to adopt a more ambitious climate target. He added that if the government doesn’t announce a target this year, it should do so by the time it hosts the G20 summit in 2022.

Arief said the Indonesian government appears to be waiting to see if industrialized countries are truly committed in their pledges to support less-industrialized nations like Indonesia on climate actions.

“Unfortunately this results in a lack of clear climate commitment from Indonesia itself,” he said of what he called a “wait-and-see” approach.

Environmentalists say there’s no time to waste, as the impacts of climate change are already here.

Indonesia was recently hit by the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the country since 2008; more than 180 people died in the storm. The country’s meteorological agency has warned that Indonesia should brace for more cyclones, with increasing frequency, as a result of rising sea temperatures.

Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati said this sense of crisis was absent in the president’s speech, which shows how Widodo has failed to see climate change as a humanitarian and planetary emergency.

“The absence of an announcement of an aggressive emission reduction commitment in the global leaders’ meeting also showed Indonesia’s tendency to alienate itself from the global community, which aims to save humankind, especially future generations, from the danger of the climate crisis,” she said.

New oil palm plantation established on peatland outside Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Climate strategies

In his speech, President Widodo cited a number of government policies as evidence of the country’s commitment in tackling climate change, such as the moratorium on primary forest and peatland conversion.

Madani forest and climate program officer Yosi Amelia said these existing policies aren’t enough as many natural forests aren’t protected under the moratorium.

Madani has identified 9.4 million hectares (23.2 million acres) of natural forests that are left unprotected by the government’s various forest-protection policies and haven’t been licensed for concessions.

Yosi said these forests should immediately be protected.

“Protecting natural forests that have already been licensed for concessions will also help to ensure Indonesia achieved its climate commitment in the forestry sector,” she said. “So that Indonesia can be at the forefront in tackling the global climate crisis.”

The president also mentioned a plan to rehabilitate 620,000 hectares (1.53 million acres) of mangroves by 2024, the largest in the world with four times carbon absorption compared to tropical forest.

The plan is complemented with a target to restore 1.2 million hectares (2.96 million acres) of degraded peatland across Indonesia by 2024, which is an extension of a previous government target of restoring 2.6 million hectares (6.42 million acres) of peatland in 2016-2020.

Yosi said this peatland restoration target is not ambitious enough as there are still many carbon-rich peatlands left degraded with no plan to rehabilitate them in sight.

She said that the 1.2 million-hectare target only includes the restoration of peat ecosystem outside licensed areas and concessions, while there are 14.2 million hectares (35 million acres) of peat that have been licensed, most of which are degraded.

“That’s why it’s important for the government to realize the existing peat restoration target and expand peat restoration to areas that were burned during the 2019 great fires, not only peat ecosystem outside concessions, but also those inside concessions,” Yosi said.

The president also touted the government’s biofuel program as a part of its climate strategy. Under the program, the government aims to phase out the use of conventional diesel for an alternative made from palm oil.

The government has estimated that it will require 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of new oil palm plantations to produce enough palm oil to replace current oil consumption of a million barrels a day.

A new report by non-profit CDP finds that rise in biofuel production is likely to derail Indonesia’s climate commitment as biofuel regulations in the country, as they currently stand, may lead to increased pressure on forests.

The report cited the lack of mandatory certification, provision of biofuel subsidies, and aggressive regulatory push for more oil palm production as things that could create conditions for producers to maintain business-as-usual production systems, instead of investing in more sustainable production innovations, such as increasing land productivity.

“Efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector through biofuel have to be done carefully in order to not sacrifice Indonesia’s natural forests by replacing them with biofuel plantations or expand palm oil plantations to meet biofuel demand,” Yosi said.


Banner image: Young protesters march during a climate strike in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September 2019. Image by Lusia Arumingtyas/ Mongabay Indonesia.


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