- Air pollution in Jakarta has hit such dire levels recently that the Indonesian capital has been named the most polluted city on Earth.
- Both the city and national governments blame vehicle emissions for the problem, yet deny that the more than a dozen coal-fired power plants ringing the city are a factor.
- A court in 2021 found the government liable for improving air quality, but the administration of President Joko Widodo chose to appeal rather than comply with the ruling.
- Now, the president himself is reportedly among the more than 630,000 cases of respiratory illness recorded in Jakarta in the first half of this year.
JAKARTA — Millions of residents of Jakarta have for the past several weeks suffered from some of the worst air pollution recorded anywhere in the world. Even President Joko Widodo has been affected by the problem — a problem his own administration refused to address even after being ordered to do so by a court two years ago.
On Aug. 15, readings for PM2.5, a class of airborne pollutants so fine that they can be inhaled and cause respiratory disease, reached 116.7 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) — more than 23 times higher than what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe.
This makes Jakarta’s air quality the worst in the world, according to data from IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality technology company.
In fact, air pollution levels have consistently been so bad throughout August that IQAir ranked Jakarta as the most polluted city on Earth for several days in the month.
The polluted air has contributed to respiratory ailments, with more than 630,000 cases recorded in the first six months of the year.
Among those reportedly affected this time is President Joko Widodo, said to be suffering from a persistent cough for nearly the past month.
“The president asked for concrete actions within the next week because the president himself has suffered from cough, he said for almost four weeks,” Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno said following a meeting with the president on Aug. 14. “He had never felt like this before. His doctor said it’s likely because of the unhealthy and poor air quality.”
The fact that the president himself has reportedly fallen ill from breathing dirty air means no one is immune to the problem, said the Jakarta Advocacy Team, a group of residents who have long campaigned against air pollution in Southeast Asia’s biggest city.
“We are concerned about the president’s condition,” team representative Natalia Naibaho, who’s also a lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Jakarta), told Mongabay. “This proves that air pollution doesn’t discriminate against age, gender or status. If the president with all the privilege that he has can be affected, then regular citizens could as well.”
Widodo has ordered swift action on tackling the issue, saying air pollution has been a persistent problem in Jakarta for years now. But this would mark a U-turn from the administration’s long-standing attitude to air pollution, which has been to downplay the severity of the problem.
In 2019, the Jakarta Advocacy Team filed a civil lawsuit against the government, including the Jakarta and Widodo administrations, for failing to protect the people’s right to clean air. They won the lawsuit in 2021, with the court ruling that Widodo and the other respondents must take measures to improve air quality in the capital.
But in the two years since the court ruling, the only action the Widodo administration has taken is to file an appeal against the ruling, prompting more criticism from activists.
“The public has reminded the government [to take action] for years, even taking the legal course so that the administration could take serious steps in tackling air pollution,” said Suci Fitria Tanjung, director of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). “But until today, [the government] hasn’t even optimized its efforts.”
Natalia, representing the plaintiffs, said the appeal showed how little the government cared about the public health.
“By filing the challenge, the respondents, including the president, are gambling with the lives of millions of citizens who are at risk of a number of both short-term and long-term illnesses,” she said.
She added the plaintiffs were hopeful the appeals court would uphold the 2021 ruling, given the gravity of the problem.
“Air pollution is a serious matter. We ask public officials to not shirk away from their responsibilities and offer false solutions,” Natalia said.
Farming out the blame
City and central government officials have also equivocated over both the severity and the sources of Jakarta’s air pollution.
Jakarta environmental agency head Asep Kuswanto said the current dry season meant there wasn’t any rain to wash the particulate matter out of the air. Yet in June last year, when Jakarta suffered from another episode of poor air quality, the same agency said the problem was due to a combination of low temperatures and high humidity, rather than heat and dryness.
“As a result, air pollutants are accumulated in the troposphere,” the lowest layer of the atmosphere, agency spokesman Yogi Ikhwan told local media last year.
Rather than blame external factors like weather that can’t be controlled, activists say the government should focus on tackling pollution at the source: vehicles, factories and power plants. Vehicle emissions account for 32-57% of the air pollution in Jakarta, according to a study published in 2020 by global health organization Vital Strategies.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has blamed commuters who travel by private vehicle instead of public transportation, saying they’re accountable for the poor air quality.
“We’re the ones who breathe the air, [and] we’re also responsible for the air that we breathe,” Sigit Reliantoro, the ministry head of environmental damage control, said at a recent press conference in Jakarta.
Presidential candidate Anies Baswedan previously also blamed the public for not using public transportation, back when he was the Jakarta governor in 2019. At the time, his administration said air pollution in the city was “not that bad.”
Citing government data, Sigit said Jakarta’s air quality from 2018 to 2023 fluctuated between “good and OK,” but acknowledged there was an increase in pollution in recent weeks.
He also called the use of IQAIR’s data to declare Jakarta the most polluted city in the world a “framing” attempt.
“The framing [of Jakarta] as the dirtiest, most polluted city in the world needs to be corrected,” Sigit said.
He cited data from AQICN, a project by the World Air Quality Index that provides air quality information for more than 130 countries. The data show PM2.5 levels in Copenhagen, Denmark, hit 500 on Aug. 11, Sigit said, and 405 in the Tokyo district of Hikawa on Aug. 13.
Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), said unusually high readings of PM2.5 in those two cities might be caused by technical errors or very high dust levels during a specific hour.
“Copenhagen most definitely does not have worse air quality than Jakarta,” he said. “Literally if someone is [sweeping] the street or having a barbeque next to the monitoring station, the reading for one station can be thrown off completely. That’s a bit different from the entire megacity of Jakarta with all of her 30 million people and large areas outside of the city too being enveloped in smog for weeks.”
The government shouldn’t be comparing one measurement for one monitoring station for one hour to levels that have been measured at dozens of locations across Jakarta for weeks, Myllyvirta added.
“Just imagine if a smog like the one Jakarta has now suffered through actually happened in Copenhagen or Tokyo — the government response would be massive,” he said. “And they most certainly would not be saying ‘Look, Jakarta has pollution too so it’s OK for you to suffer.’”
Choking on coal smog
This time around, the government has proposed several measures to tackle vehicle emissions, such as implementing remote work arrangements, enforcing stricter emissions checks, and encouraging wider adoption of electric vehicles.
Efforts to reduce traffic volume to address pollution have been tried before. In the run-up to the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, the city administration imposed an odd-even policy allowing cars on certain main streets if their license plate ended in an odd or even number. This effectively cut the number of cars on key streets by half, with the average vehicle speeds on the roads in questions increasing by 37%.
Commuters were also encouraged to use public transportation, just as the government is asking residents to do now, with the number of passengers on the Transjakarta bus network rising by 40% at the time.
Yet the air quality in Jakarta remained poor during the sports event.
Some athletes complained about the air pollution. Due to Jakarta’s heat and polluted air, Indonesian racewalker Hendro Yap collapsed at the end of the men’s 50-kilometer event and 2017 world champion Rose Chelimo of Bahrain said she almost gave up.
“I felt something in my throat too. The air here, you feel like it’s hard to breathe,” Chelimo told AFP.
That’s because there’s been no effort to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, which are likely very significant sources of Jakarta’s air pollution, according to Daniel Kass, senior vice president for environmental health at Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit.
Today, there are 16 such plants within a 100-kilometer (60-mile) radius of Jakarta, double the figure from 2018.
When the Indonesian government imposed a quasi-lockdown to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the streets of Jakarta were virtually empty. Yet PM2.5 levels in Jakarta remained persistently high from late March to early June 2020, a 2020 study by CREA found. It traced the source of these pollutants to the coal-fired power plants near the city.
The main one was the Suralaya industrial estate in Banten province. Home to five large coal plants, Suralaya is the most polluting industrial complex in all of Southeast Asia, based on satellite monitoring of emitted pollutants such as nitrous oxides (NOx).
Sigit from the environment ministry refuted the findings by CREA. He cited satellite imagery from July 27 to Aug. 9, 2023, that showed nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from the Suralaya power plants were blowing from east to west, away from Jakarta. He added a separate analysis carried out by the ministry in 2019 had found pollutants from Suralaya weren’t blowing toward Jakarta.
“This confirms that the pollution in Jakarta comes from local sources, no pollutants from Suralaya enter Jakarta,” Sigit said.
This isn’t the first time the environment ministry has denied that coal plants have anything to do with air pollution in Jakarta.
In a 2018 interview, Dasrul Chaniago, then director of air pollution at the environment ministry, said “Why would smoke from coal-fired power plants travel all the way to Jakarta? Do they want to go to the shopping malls here? Are you sure smoke from power plants in Banten can be carried by the wind to Jakarta? You’re given the ability to think by God. We have logic. We’re not animals.”
CREA’s Myllyvirta pointed out that the environment ministry used satellite maps from late July to early August, which is the dry season in Jakarta, when the prevailing winds are from the east and southeast. This means that the pollution during this period comes from West and Central Java provinces rather than Banten, Myllyvirta said.
“Our modeling indicates that the coal power plants contributing most to pollution in Jakarta during recent episodes are Cirebon, Cilacap, Cikarang and Babelan,” all east of Jakarta, he told Mongabay.
The coal power plants and factories in Suralaya and elsewhere west of Jakarta contribute to the city’s pollution mainly during the wet season, when the wind blows from west to east, Myllyvirta added.
“Jakarta is surrounded by coal power plants in three directions, so one has to ask what the motivation of the ministry would be to focus on the one that is downwind of Jakarta [Suralaya] during this specific season,” he said.
A tale of two cities
Beijing, another major Asian capital, used to grapple with the same problem of air pollution. When it hosted the Olympics in 2008, Beijing had some of the dirtiest skies in the world, with air quality so bad that the sun was darkened with thick smog.
But now, citizens of Beijing enjoy clear skies as the air quality in the capital has steadily improved over years. For many Jakarta residents, the question is why their city isn’t making the same kind of progress.
In 2013, the Chinese government took the fight to pollution after a spate of hazardous smog in Beijing triggered widespread public anger. The government enacted an action plan billed at $100 billion, under which it clamped down on factories, forced old vehicles off the road, and introduced a policy to switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas, compelling millions of households and businesses to make the switch.
The Beijing government also installed air quality monitoring (AQM) stations throughout the city to provide real-time data. By 2013, there were 35 AQM stations monitoring six major pollutants such as PM2.5 and ozone (O3) across Beijing. And in 2016, the government established a new-generation integrated AQM network combining advanced technologies like high-resolution satellite remote sensing and lidar. As a result, there are more than 1,000 PM2.5 sensors throughout Beijing today to accurately identify high-emission areas and periods.
In Jakarta, it wasn’t until 2019 that the city administration installed AQM stations that could monitor PM2.5. As of the end of 2022, there were only five AQM stations run by the city, each of which can only cover a radius of 5 km (3 mi). Jakarta would need at least 44 such stations to cover the whole city, according to the city administration.
The Beijing government also ramped up efforts to deter companies from polluting the air. In 2016, it was closely monitoring some 170 major polluters daily; other companies were subject to spot inspections.
Indonesia has regulations on how much emissions factories can produce. But the monitoring depends on self-reporting by these factories, which means there’s no rigorous system to actually monitor industries in Indonesia, according to Puji Lestari, a professor of environmental engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
“How can we be sure that they do their monitoring correctly or be truthful in their report? It all depends on the goodwill of the industry players,” she said as quoted by CNA. “There are many loopholes that they can exploit. We need a more rigorous system to monitor industries.”
In Beijing, those who breach pollution quotas are fined, with the government issuing fines totaling 19.95 million yuan ($3 million) in air pollution cases in the first half of 2016 alone. To boost law enforcement, the government amended China’s environmental protection law in 2014, which gave officials the power to detain company executives who didn’t complete environmental impact assessments, and scrapped limits on fines for firms breaching pollution quotas.
The Beijing government also focused its efforts on tackling air pollution from coal, a major source of pollution. Besides introducing the coal-to-gas policy, the government also tried to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by requiring efficiency upgrades and emissions cuts. As a result, coal emissions of PM2.5, NOx and sulfur dioxide went down by 97%, 86% and 98% respectively in 2017 compared with 20 years earlier.
The combination of strong policies and enormous investment of time and resources resulted in more than 100 additional days of clear skies each year than when the clean air campaign began in 2013, and a reduction in PM2.5 levels by 35% from 2013 to 2017.
“No other city or region on the planet has achieved such a feat,” Joyce Msuya, former acting executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme said in a 2019 report that analyzed Beijing’s air pollution policies.
Unlike Beijing’s all-out campaign against polluting companies, the Indonesian government in 2020 introduced legislation that effectively weakens enforcement against polluting companies.
Under the so-called omnibus law on job creation, the public no longer has the right to file objections against environmental impact assessments once approved. That makes it more difficult for affected communities and advocacy groups to mount legal challenges to projects that pollute the environment, such as coal plants, according to environmental law experts.
The omnibus law also weakens sanctions against polluters. Business activities that pollute water and air, even if they endanger human lives, are now only subject to administrative sanctions such as fines, whereas previously they could have faced criminal penalties.
These developments have left activists questioning the government’s commitment to enforce the law on the thousands of factories and power plants in and around Jakarta that regularly belch thick gray smoke into the air.
“Sanctions [should be imposed] not only on individuals, but also on [polluting] businesses,” said Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu.
Moving the problem
Farah Nurfirman, a Jakarta resident, told BBC Indonesia that she’s been severely affected by the worsening air pollution. She said she’s suffered with asthma since she was a child, and lately her asthma attacks have become more frequent, making it hard for her to breath.
“Not only shortness of breath, I also feel much pain on my chest,” she said, adding that her breathing difficulties have gotten so bad to the point that she has to bring an inhaler whenever she goes.
According to a 2022 report by Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), developed by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), air pollution slashes three to four years off Jakarta citizens’ life expectancy.
An analysis by CREA estimates that air pollution causes nearly 2,000 deaths per year in Jakarta and $1.1 billion in economic costs. These deaths are due to heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, chronic respiratory disease and other health conditions linked to air pollution. Other health impacts include new cases of asthma and preterm births.
The Widodo administration, which is building a new national capital on the island of Borneo, says this should alleviate many of the problems currently afflicting Jakarta, including air pollution.
“One of the solutions is by reducing the burden of Jakarta so that some [of the burden] will be shifted to the new capital city,” Widodo said as quoted by national daily Kompas.
Myllyvirta said moving the capital is not a solution.
“Unless the 30 million people in the Jakarta region are moved too, it would not do anything to reduce the major public health impacts of air pollution,” he said.
Due to her asthma, Farah said she’s been advised by her doctors to move out of Jakarta. It’s the only way for her to get better, they told her.
“[But] this is where I live,” Farah said. “So I could only wear mask as a preventive measure. But in the end, there’s not much I can do.”
Banner image: Smog from air pollution appears in the sky above a business district in Jakarta in 2019.The air quality is getting worse recently due to the high pollution from traffic and the coal power plant that surrounds Jakarta. Image courtesy of Jurnasyanto Sukarno/Greenpeace.
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