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Indonesian climate change efforts at stake

Written by Aidy Halimanjaya, Will McFarland


The tensions and euphoria surrounding Indonesia’s recent presidential election brings back memories of my first election experience in Indonesia. Lots of things have changed over the last decade, but my worries are still the same: ‪the new president will most likely radically alter or adjust many existing policies and introduce a new political agenda. This seems an embedded characteristic of Indonesia, where rules change when the leader changes.

This is worrying for Indonesia’s climate change initiatives. ‪If the new president cannot grasp the momentum gathered under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY – the president since 2004) and misses the opportunity to perpetuate international public and private investments in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, it would be fateful for Indonesia and the world at large. 

For example, at the 2009 G-20 Summit, SBY committed toreducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2020, with the potential for 41% reductions if international assistance was secured. Even though this was a political statement and promise, I fear it can be changed overnight under the new president’s directive.

Although Indonesia’s commitment to reducing emissions might seem hollow, there has been significant international support with Norway pledging $1billion to slow down a deforestation rate that has recently surpassed Brazil’s. Grants and public and private investments in climate-friendly development projects are slowly balancing the hefty debt and loan arrangements under different development aid agreements. This is creating positive momentum for change in Indonesia, allowing the country to be a critical voice in the climate debate.

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) looks to have won the presidential race and is set to be the new leader. Former general Prabowo Subianto was the candidate who also ran for the presidency. It is unfortunate that both candidates’ manifestos ignore SBY’s legacy and his political standpoints, despite SBY's recent position as co-chair of the High Level Panel on post-2015 Development Goals. Connections between new directives and existing commitments are unclear, although both candidates mentioned some priorities that have a climate-friendly nuance within the campaign period. However, some mandates have competing objectives and are contradictory to one another.

Prabowo seemed enthusiastic about climate change mitigation, but Indonesia’s 41% target might limit his ambitions of achieving a 10% GDP growth per annum (another one of his promises). His ‘big push strategy’ to open two million hectares of land for food production might actually accelerate deforestation. Prabowo wants to build hydropower and geothermal plants to address the country’s basic energy needs but these policies might not be climate-friendly as often they are located in conservation areas.

Jokowi, on the other hand, has committed less virgin lands and promised investments to increase productivity on existing lands for further development of key agricultural industries. His aims of “repositioning the role of Indonesia in addressing global issues” might vaguely refer to climate change issues. Jokowi is interested to explore a maritime strategy and promote Indonesia’s identity as an archipelago and an emerging middle-income country. How this aspiration links with national emission reduction target is not self-evident other than some secondary priorities to reduce CO2 emissions and supporting development of renewable energy. Ironically his agenda of supporting fossil fuels explorations may lead to increased emissions.

There seem to be no apparent links between national and international efforts in either Jokowi's or Prabowo's mandates despite Indonesia’s national climate agenda and international climate agenda being interlinked. Indonesia has expressed a commitment to financially contribute to Green Climate Fund, the new multilateral financial instrument that aims to fund climate activities in multiple countries. International donors appreciate Indonesia’s commitment and are willing to support the country’s efforts to shift to low carbon development initiatives.

For both presidential candidates, national integrity and security issues eclipse everything else, including climate change. With both men claiming victory based on exit polls in the days following the election, and results being challenged in the court by Prabowo after the official vote count proclaimed Jokowi to be the winner, the future of Indonesian politics is unsettled, as is the climate policy. Climate change is not a priority for either candidate when it conflicts with other national priorities that are closer to the aspirations of most Indonesians.