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Climate Change: Will Indonesia Be Just a Bystander or a Leader?

This life-and-death global issue has been relegated to director general and director levels in the civil service. Without political push from the top, nothing much will happen.

By Dino Patti Djalal


In the midst of the Covid-19 storm that continues to engulf the world, we must be careful not to lose sight of another major issue that is the focus of global struggle: climate change.

This year, 2021, is set to be a significant one for the future of our planet and for mankind itself. That is because this year will determine whether the nations of the world can begin to act together to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as mandated by the Paris Climate Change Agreement that was signed five years ago.

Climate change diplomacy is set to intensify throughout 2021, as much work is far behind schedule. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, many nations have been slow or hesitant about sticking to their commitments – the United States under President Donald Trump even pulled out of the Treaty.

To date, only about 50 countries have submitted ambitious emission-reduction targets to the UN. Indeed, it is not Governments but corporations, CSOs and NGOs, and the younger generation that have been leading the way.

The backtracking that has taken place is very worrying because the window of opportunity for stabilizing the global climate is closing. According to the experts, to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions must be reduced by 50 percent during the course of this decade; another 50 percent during the next decade, and a further 50 percent during the 2040s.

We are still very far from achieving these targets. Given prevailing economic practices and lifestyles, the Earth’s temperature will likely rise by 3 – 4 degrees Celsius.

Fortunately, there were some positive political, diplomatic and economic developments towards the end of 2020. A number of major emitters have set targets to become “carbon neutral” between 2050 and 2060, including China, Japan, Korea and South Africa. Further, President Joe Biden on his first day in office rejoined the United States with the Paris Agreement, which gave new energy to climate diplomacy. More than 1,000 multinational companies worldwide have also committed themselves to “science-based target initiative” (SBTI).

Indonesia’s weak commitment

The good news is likely to continue through 2021. However, amid all these positive developments, Indonesia has yet to make a move.

In recent years, there have been a number of developments that indicate that climate change is no longer a priority for the Government. The National Council on Climate Change was dissolved, and since then there has been practically no unified national-level policies on the issue in Indonesia. The REDD + agency that was formed thereafter is also now moribund. In reality, the issue of climate change has now been relegated to the director general and director levels in the civil service. Without political push from the top, bureaucrats at these levels will be unable to do much.

In 2015, the Indonesian government announced to the international community that it would raise its emission reduction target from 26 percent to 29 percent, with 2030 as the benchmark. However, this commitment was not acted on and, as a result, there is no blueprint or action plan, or clarity as to what has or has not been done.

Due to inter-ministerial differences of opinion and conflicts of interest, the 29 percent target remained nothing more than a commitment on paper. It is said that differences of opinion even exist within the Ministry of the Environment itself.

The 29 percent target also conflicts with the Government’s policy to increase electricity capacity by 35,000 megawatts, most of which is to be generated from coal (a dirty fuel that will actually lead to increased carbon emissions). As regards the target to increase the share of new and renewable energy in the national energy mix to 23 percent by the end of 2025, we remain firmly stuck at 9 percent. Former energy and mineral resources minister Ignasius Jonan admits he was pessimistic about achieving this target.

In the light of all this, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) states that Indonesia’s climate change policy is “highly insufficient.”

Even more worrisome, Indonesia is no longer an active participant in climate change diplomacy on the international stage. For example, more than 70 heads of state attended the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020 to commemorate five years of the signing of the Paris Agreement, and to simultaneously review it. However, Indonesia was only represented by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, whose remit does not run to sectors related to climate change (environment, industry, energy, forestry etc.), let alone determine Indonesia’s climate reduction target.

Therefore, Indonesia will need to answer an important question early this year: do we want to be a bystander only or do we want to be a mover / influencer / leader?

If we just want to be a bystander, then we will not have to do much. We only need to send representatives to attend a few climate conferences, fill in the attendance lists, raise our hands to vote, and issue suitably bland diplomatic statements.

However, if we want to be a mobiliser or leader in this international struggle, we will have to do much more.

Climate change must be elevated from the ministerial to the presidential level, with the President taking direct charge. The Government should establish a national climate change mechanism so that concepts and targets are applied in the form of concrete policies. The Government should introduce progressive climate policies such as carbon tax, ecological fiscal transfer (EFT), reviewing permits and concessions for land use that may cause floods, avalanche, forest fires, etc.

The Government must encourage the Indonesian business community, including Kadin and Hipmi, to adopt greener ways of thinking – when I say “green” here, I’m not just talking about saving the forests and reducing plastic, but rather systematically calculating and reducing carbon emissions in business practices. The Indonesian business world also needs to adopt an emerging global paradigm that low-carbon business practices will actually increase — no longer reduce – profits.

Green investment

The government also needs to boost “green investment,” which according to various studies will create more jobs than conventional investment. The reforestation programs as well as the moratorium on deforestation must also be strongly pursued, and zero-emission electric vehicles and buildings promoted nationwide. Large investments in the new and renewable energy sector, which to date has been minimal, must be ramped up dramatically.

The Low Carbon Mid-Term Development Strategy developed by the Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas) in 2019 — which stated Indonesia could grow the economy by 6 percent while reducing emission 43 percent — must be seriously implemented so that it does not become just an idea on paper.

The government must also ensure that the recovery strategy — with a recovery budget of 695 Trillion rupiah in 2020 and 403 Trillion rupiah in 2021 — can be aligned with the long-term goal for sustainable development. The European Union, for example, has allocated 30 percent of its Covid-19 budget stimulus to green investments.

Most importantly, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, the Government of Indonesia needs to promptly adopt a much higher “Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC)” – a multilateral term for emission reduction targets. The 29 percent target is no longer sufficient and is far below the aspired world standard.

Indonesia’s credibility on the international negotiating circuit depends on our ability to show a progressive and bold attitude to reducing emissions in our own country (Indonesia is ranked as the 11th largest carbon emitter in the world). Remember: in 2009, in the run-up to the COP-15 global climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Indonesia emerged as a “game-changer” in climate diplomacy when we announced the target of 26 percent emission reduction, at a time when not a single developing country was ready to come up with a number.

It will be impossible for us to conduct climate diplomacy effectively with a national target of only 29 percent. As a comparison, China, which is the world’s largest economy and also the world’s largest emitter, has announced its target to become carbon neutral before 2060. Indonesia does not need to wait for pressures from the United States, European Union, Britain and China before announcing a higher NDC target.

The lesson of Covid-19 is to never ignore the warning signs. They were already there before the pandemic and the calls for caution were loud. There was even a warning about the threat of a dangerous viral pandemic in a Ministry of Defense white paper in 2015. Despite all this, nothing in the way of funding or preparation had ever been organized.

On the issue of climate change, all the signs are also already there. We should not have to wait for the catastrophe to happen before taking action. Last year was the second hottest recorded year in the world’s history (the hottest was 2016). Further, the seven warmest years in human history have occurred consecutively since 2014. Greenland recently lost 580 billion tons of ice that melted as a result of higher temperatures, which is enough to cover the whole of California in one meter of water. In Indonesia, we have also seen significant rise in the intensity of natural disasters.

The climate situation is set to get worse, threatening all sectors of the economy and society, including our industry, agriculture, supply chains, infrastructure, public health, water supplies, maritime economy. Meanwhile, the potential for climate conflict and climate-related wars is growing by the day.

If the Earth’s temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius, it will be permanent. Unlike an economic crisis, from which a nation can recover, climate change will result in an irreversible disaster that will afflict all future generations of Indonesians unless it is urgently tackled.

So, I repeat the question I posed at the outset of this article: in the struggle over climate change this year, and as the nations head for COP-26 in Glasgow in November this year, does Indonesia want to be a bystander or a leader?


Editor’s note: The Indonesian language version of this commentary was published in Kompas on Monday, 25 January 2021, and is published here with the permission of the author. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.


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