Waiting for Serendipity…

Since the 1992 consensus that countries must work together to significantly decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or risk catastrophic climate change, the UNFCCC has struggled to meet its ambitious goals with concrete, binding action that could actually cut global emissions. Much of the reason for this is that many powerful countries are unwilling to sacrifice economic growth and competitiveness in the name of the environment. These countries include the United States, China, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Without these powerful actors on board, a comprehensive climate treaty will be impossible to negotiate. In our meeting with Agus Purnomo, the head of Indonesia’s National Council on Climate Change (DNPI) and lead climate negotiator, he pointed out that many of the climate negotiators are, in principle, on board with more aggressive action but lack the political support from the voters and/or legislators to whom they are responsible and that, as a function of democracy and staggered elections, it is hard for all of the major countries’ governments to be aligned in support of a climate treaty at any given time. Mr. Purnomo claimed it would require a certain degree of serendipity to break the current logjam in international negotiations.

Indonesia’s climate sensitivity, its contribution to the climate change problem, and its mitigation actions thus far are representative of what is playing out on a global scale, thereby making it an ideal case study for further discussion. Indonesia, being an archipelago, features a lot of low-lying populated coastal areas. Sea level rise is expected to inundate many of these economically important coastal zones. There is also expected to be a higher incidence and increased severity of forest fires. At the same time, rainfall variation is also expected to increase, placing stress on hydroelectricity generation and drinking water supplies in times of shortage and overwhelming water treatment and sewer capacity in times of excess. In short, Indonesia is very vulnerable to a changing climate.

Indonesia is currently the world’s third largest GHG emitter behind China and the United States, a result that stems from the rapid deforestation Indonesia has experienced over the past two decades. Deforestation, illegal logging, forest fires, and peatland degradation together are Indonesia’s largest source of GHG emissions. The second largest source of GHG emissions comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which is projected to eventually exceed the emissions generated by the former category as more coal plants are brought online for electricity generation and more Indonesians use automobiles. Contributing to the growth of fossil fuels are the heavy subsidies the federal government provides to keep prices low for Indonesian consumers. In 2000, fuel subsidies peaked at 28.6% of the federal budget. As of 2008, fossil fuel subsidies consumed 13% of the federal budget (Leitmann et. al.).

While Indonesia is certainly contributing to its climate challenges, it has also, under the current administration of President Yudhoyono, raised the profile of climate change in Indonesia’s domestic policymaking and foreign relations. Mr. Purnomo conveyed to us that this was largely a result of serendipity. According to him, President Yudhoyono, as an observer of the COP13 proceedings in Bali, was inspired to step up his administration’s efforts to combat climate change and therefore positioned Indonesia to be one of the major backers of REDD+, an initiative that would see the developed world financially support afforestation, land reclamation, and forest protection efforts as a means of preserving and ideally growing the country’s carbon stock. In this vein, Indonesia signed a Letter of Intent with Norway in 2010 to capitalize REDD+ projects once Indonesia had successfully developed the legal infrastructure and bureaucratic processes needed to measure and verify the GHG absorption capacity of project proposals. Indonesia has also accelerated its investment in renewable energy, particularly in geothermal. As part of the G20, Indonesia has also committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020. All of these efforts feed into Indonesia’s commitment to unilaterally reduce its GHG emissions by 26% by 2020 relative to 2005 levels or by 46% with support from the international community.

Indonesia faces significant challenges in translating its efforts into GHG emissions reductions for a variety of reasons. The country’s decentralization starting in the late 1990s has made it very difficult to manage forest resources optimally, despite the Indonesian government’s efforts to impose moratoriums on primary forest concessions. Weak law enforcement capacity combined with decentralized administrative structures give ample opportunities for illegal activities to persist and a multitude of entry points for corporate interests to seek additional land for the development of palm oil plantations. It is also politically unpopular for the federal government to reduce fossil fuel subsidies since much of Indonesia’s economic growth depends on the burning of cheap fossil fuels by motor vehicles. Indonesians also aspire to greater socioeconomic and material wellbeing, increasing demand for electricity and transport fuels.

While Indonesia certainly has great room to become a climate champion through improving it’s capacity to enforce its own laws to prevent deforestation and land degradation and to halt investment in coal in favor of renewables like geothermal, among other strategies, Indonesia has been very supportive of international action at the UNFCCC, has set ambitious targets for itself, and has helped to spur one of the UNFCCC’s few action mechanisms with the potential for facilitating global emissions reductions, REDD+, which is still in its infancy. Developed countries, on the other hand, will control the fate of the planet as it pertains to climate change. Whether they will agree to provide the appropriate financing that is necessary to avoid emissions through the GCF, CDM, and REDD+ as well as bilateral and/or other multilateral financing arrangements and whether they will accede to a legally binding climate treaty will determine, among many other adverse outcomes, whether some countries will go underwater, how many coastal cities will experience more frequent flooding, and how many millions more people face starvation or food insecurity.

As a growing economic powerhouse and emitter of GHGs as well as a bellwether for the success and scalability of REDD+, Indonesia will become a more important voice among developing countries in advocating for the necessary international cooperation that can shield the country from the most devastating consequences of climate change. Indonesia’s fate and the fate of the world, however, are ultimately in the hands of a few developed countries like the United States and China, whose leadership is so urgently needed. Let’s hope that with a little serendipity we will see the world’s most powerful leaders join in solidarity with the developing world to forge an ambitious, legally binding agreement at the COP21 in Paris in 2015.

— Andrew Reighart

Photo: L. Ahlman

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