With the backdrop of massive peat land fires sending carbon into the atmosphere and the fast-approaching U.N. climate talks, environmental advocates expect today's visit between Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and President Obama to touch on climate change and deforestation challenges.
The meeting isn't the two leaders' first but is the first state visit for the Indonesian president, who was elected a year ago. Activists hope Jokowi will go beyond a recent announcement to control peat fires and reform land use policies, although there is some skepticism that other topics will overtake the agenda.
In terms of environmental impacts, Indonesia is no small player. The fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, the country in recent years has overtaken Brazil as the No. 1 deforesting nation. Annual smoke and haze, created when the nation's peat lands are burned and cleared for agricultural use, create a regional health threat and send significant carbon into the atmosphere. This year, bolstered by El Niño, the fires are some of the worst in the country's history (ClimateWire, Oct. 21).
On Friday, Jokowi announced radical steps to address the annual peat land fires. Speaking in a Cabinet meeting, the president directed that there would be no more licensing for concessions on peat lands, a review of existing licensing, and the creation of a program to restore the carbon-rich forests, Indonesian media report.
"To follow through on these announcements would be a big deal," said Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
Seymour said she does not think the announcements were made only because of the impending bilateral talks with the United States. However, the effort to tackle deforestation will be difficult, which leaves an opening for the United States to offer support.
The challenge will be seeing eye to eye on the reasons each country supports this action — the U.S. because of its potential carbon savings and Indonesia because the fires caused by clearing lead to significant health and economic threats.
"The announcement suggests that Jokowi himself is recognizing that a long-term solution to the fires cannot be achieved without a fundamental change in land use, particularly related to peat lands," she said. "A great outcome on Monday would be clear understanding that international support will work with Jokowi's domestic agenda, and does not imply a tradeoff between domestic and international interests."
Brian Harding, director for East and Southeast Asia for the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, said he expects climate to be on the agenda, but not at the top. Jokowi's visit is expected to produce a number of results, namely on Indonesia's goal to position itself as a maritime power.
"The fact that the Paris climate negotiations are such an extreme high priority for President Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry has meant in the lead-up to this meeting with President Jokowi and every leader that has come to Washington this year, it has forced climate change and the Paris negotiations on the agenda for every meeting, and this is no exception," he said.
A 'reformer' or friend to palm oil interests?
A slowing economy in China — a major purchaser of Indonesia's commodities — has been a blow to Indonesia's own economy, and Jokowi has spent a considerable amount of time and diplomatic effort trying to bolster it. Gross domestic product growth has slowed to 4.7 percent, uncovering underlying problems within the Indonesian economy, including an underdeveloped manufacturing sector, Harding said.
In the run-up to Jokowi's election last fall, the environment and climate change seemed to hang in the background, although many hoped they would take a more prominent role (ClimateWire, July 21, 2014).
"Because he's a relative reformer — he does not have strong ties to ministries and large producers that have benefited from deforestation — some hoped he would see the environment as crucial for the economics of the country," said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
In some ways, Jokowi's election has marked a departure from business as usual for the Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of islands. A heavy metal fan who came to politics by way of selling furniture, Jokowi built on his reputation as a reformer while governor of Jakarta and mayor of Surakarta. Some of his first actions in office were to phase out fuel subsidies that benefited the rich and redirect the funds to education and health care for the poor.
When the peat fires, almost all of which are intentionally set to clear forests for palm oil plantations, began this year, the president broke with past leadership, expressed his dismay and threatened to sanction palm oil company PT Tempirai Palm Resources after he paid a surprise visit to its land concession in South Sumatra where fires are raging (ClimateWire, Sept. 14).
Indonesian police arrested seven corporate executives in connection with illegal forest fires across Sumatra and Kalimantan as part of a wide-ranging effort to stop the haze crisis, an unprecedented action.
Still, recent actions by the Jokowi government have cast doubts that the leader is willing to take on big palm oil interests. Last week, Indonesia's chief natural resources minister, Rizal Ramli, told Parliament that Indonesia together with Malaysia is backing a new palm oil producing group. The two countries, which produce about 85 percent of palm oil worldwide, have proposed the creation of the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries. The intergovernmental group would push to replace "no deforestation" pledges with a set of jointly-agreed-on sustainable forestry practices.
"It does seem to be a step backwards," Skar said. "The INDC was a step backwards, too. But I think the U.S. has good people in the State Department who understand that sometimes backwards is a way to position themselves."
Climate targets that are 'kind of a mess'?
Indonesia's national plan to cut emissions, officially called an intended nationally determined contribution, or INDC, committed the country to reduce emissions 29 percent by 2030 compared with business-as-usual projected emissions and a conditional 41 percent reduction with international support.
Bill Hare, founder of Climate Analytics, called Indonesia's climate change targets "disappointing."
Hare, whose group analyzes countries' emissions trends and plans for mitigation, said Indonesia's proposal is "weak" and "kind of a mess."
Most notably, he said, the government has few policies in place to actually ensure deforestation comes under control. Meanwhile, Indonesia also is poised to rely heavily on coal for its future energy growth. He said he hopes both issues come up when Jokowi visits Washington, D.C., and urged Obama to "encourage" Indonesia to avoid overinvestment in coal.
Others see the national contribution as a step in the right direction. Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy at the Nature Conservancy, praised Indonesia's climate efforts and noted that the government said it can achieve the deeper end of its 29-to-41-percent emissions curb by 2030 if it receives international finance.
"That creates a really interesting opportunity for developed countries to come in and match that commitment," Marsh said. "Indonesia is one of the major emitters in the world, and this year it's likely to be even more than usual," because of the raging fires burning carbon-rich peat lands.
Marsh called Jokowi's upcoming meeting with Obama an opportunity for both countries. "I would love to see them agree to cooperate further so the U.S. is in a position to help Indonesia with its loss of forests," he said.
Indonesia's previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, pledged ahead of the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020, or by 41 percent with international financial backing. In response, Norway's government offered Indonesia $1 billion in exchange for a moratorium on the issuance of new logging permits.
Corruption undermines logging restrictions
Although the money was put on the table, none of it has been paid to Indonesia because it hasn't been able to get its deforestation under control. Potentially, millions of acres of forests have been spared, but the pace of deforestation has actually increased, despite the moratorium. A recent study found that between 2000 and 2012, nearly 15 million acres of natural forest was lost, an area roughly the size of Sri Lanka.
Forty percent of the deforestation occurred within national forestlands where logging is restricted, hinting at the extent of corruption and illegality in the forestry sector. And, despite the current president's moratorium, the highest level of clearing occurred in 2012.
So far, most of the aid from the United States to combat this issue has been in the form of technical support or on a project-based level.
"All of Sumatra will burn down if you take that approach," Skar said. "It's hard for Obama to guarantee that money, but he can definitely set the table."
The president has given indications that helping developing countries move in a sustainable direction would benefit not only the U.S., but also the world. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly last month, Obama highlighted the way sustainable development is interconnected with reaching the world's climate goals and committed the U.S. to working with countries to end poverty, hunger and inequality.
"In just two months, the world has an opportunity to unite around a strong global agreement," Obama said. "We need to establish the tools and financing to help developing nations embrace clean energy, adapt to climate change and ensure that there's not a false choice between economic development and the best practices that can save our planet" (ClimateWire, Sept. 28).
Step one, Skar said, is that the United States needs to acknowledge emissions coming from the peat fires are not just an Indonesian problem.
"Or at least, the U.S. has a role to play," he said. "I don't think it's fair to blame Indonesia when it's being driven by our consumption of these products. I think Obama needs to go in not pointing fingers, but acknowledging this is a problem that is important to the world and the world needs to put it together again."
Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500