Nationalist rhetoric is impeding climate action in Indonesia

As the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, Indonesia presents itself as a cooperative member of the global community to reduce greenhouse gases emission. In 2015, the government established the Peatland Restoration Agency (Badan Restorasi Gambut or BRG) to accelerate its climate change mitigation effort. Recently, the National Development Agency launched the Low Carbon Development Indonesia (LCDI) report, established to assist Indonesia’s transition to a low carbon economy. The report mentioned that a 43% reduction of greenhouse gas emission by the year 2030 under the LCDI’s high scenario will spur 6% GDP growth per year between 2019-2045. This is a promising pathway for Indonesia.

Despite the above points, Indonesia’s climate action is nowhere near ambitious. Its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) pledge, capped at 29% emission reduction by 2030 under the business-as-usual scenario, is graded as highly insufficient by Climate Action Tracker. The government of Indonesia has yet to lay out a bold, more ambitious follow-up plan for the BRG, whose five-year strategic plan will expire this year. On top of the uncertainty, the head of the BRG recently lamented the inadequate budget for peatland restoration this year. Furthermore, in spite of the Low Development Carbon plan, the National Development Agency’s dismissal of a state of the climate crisis has planted doubts in the eyes of many on their seriousness to implement climate policy.

Instead of filling in this gap, the government of Indonesia continues to espouse climate-detrimental policies under the rhetoric of national sovereignty and security, mostly through the subject of economic development. The environmental aftermath of these policies is deliberately left out. I argue that the nationalistic framing exhibited by the Indonesian government is counterproductive to the global endeavour of preventing climate catastrophe.

Recently, President Joko Widodo tweeted the following:

“Indonesia has 13 million hectares of oil palm plantations that produce 46 million tons [of crude palm oil, or CPO] per year. The EU has been creating an issue that Indonesian CPO is not environmentally friendly. This is merely a trade war between countries, since [Indonesia’s] CPO can be cheaper than [EU’s] sunflower oil.”

In addition to the tweet, during his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) 47th-anniversary opening speech, President Jokowi talked about gearing up domestic palm oil consumption through a mix of 20% of palm oil-based biofuel and diesel (B20), which will be gradually ‘upgraded’ to B30, B50 and so on, according to its amount of palm oil mix.

The tweet has received a negative response from representatives of environmental NGOs WALHI and Greenpeace. Indeed, environmental groups believe that the Indonesian government needs to reconsider the country’s dependence on palm oil.

Palm oil plantation is the leading cause of rampant deforestation in Indonesia. From 2001 to 2015, Indonesia has lost almost half a million-hectare forests on average, emitting enormous amounts of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere. President Jokowi’s tweet dangerously left out a crucial aspect: that this ambitious targets for domestic palm oil consumption will expand Indonesia deforestation and put all of us, especially more vulnerable groups, into a dire climate breakdown.

Cultivating consent: challenges and opportunities in the West Papuan palm oil sector

The need for consent from indigenous landowners in Indonesia's West Papua oil palm developments.

While a moratorium on new land clearing for palm oil plantation has been in place since 2011, the situation on the ground depicts a discouraging reality. Findings from Sustainable Madani Foundation suggest that more than one million hectares of primary forest and peatland within the moratorium area are palm oil plantations. Land use permits in the moratorium area are still issued behind closed doors by mafia operating at the local level.

The president’s statement has sparked anxiety among many, given that Jokowi did not rule out new land clearing and deforestation within this plan. Furthermore, Jokowi alluded that he would eventually aim for B100 palm oil-based diesel in the future. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the B100 program will require 56.980 tons of palm oil per year by 2025. In the absence of a productivity increase in a current palm plantation, the B100 demand can only be met by clearing 7.2 million hectares of land. This gargantuan amount of land clearing will cause the earth a more calamitous future.

Additionally, this glorification of domestic palm oil consumption, promising a gain of up to 200 trillion for Indonesia, can be seen by business actors as a green light to expand palm plantation. With unaddressed gaps in the current moratorium and spatial planning policy, this stimulation opens the way for more deforestation. Even with the current moratorium, a recent investigation by The Gecko Project reveals a gigantic secret deal of deforestation to open new palm oil plantations in Papua.

The sole emphasis on defending ‘national interest’ directs the audience’s attention only to a specific aspect of reality. What is a profound climate issue, not only for Indonesia but for global society, is rebranded as a “trade war between countries” and an exclusively economic development opportunity too precious to be missed. Beyond the environmental consequence, this rhetoric also deprives the audience of the knowledge of negative economic consequences in the future. According to an analysis, the projected total cost of climate change impact in Indonesia is estimated at 132 trillion rupiahs (roughly A$14.5 billion) in 2050. The bulk of this economic loss will be experienced in the agriculture and health sector, impacting on people’s well-being and thus generating economic deterioration in the long run.

Economic animosity against the EU takes a central point in this rhetoric. Significant progress on climate action will need to be built on the shared responsibility of a common future. Contrary to that, this rhetoric establishes an us-against-them situation that prompts people to approach global issues with a nationalistic point of view.

The use of this rhetoric is not unprecedented. Most notably, this has been showcased in the controversial withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by US President Donald Trump and in the Amazon mega-infrastructure plan by Brazil’s President Bolsonaro during his presidential campaign. By imposing a nationalistic narrative on what is supposed to be a global environmental issue, both leaders play a crucial role in blocking climate action.

More alarmingly, in Indonesia, this rhetoric is not only demonstrated by President Jokowi. In an interview, Indonesia’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Arifin Tasrif defended the country’s coal production despite existing pressure to phase out the fossil fuel industry. The Minister said, “How come we have to jump to the other side, while the income of our people is not reaching a kind of adequate level? So, allow us to develop our country, […]”.

As the largest coal exporter in the world, the Indonesian government still refuses to let go of its unhealthy dependence on coal as export commodities and the source of domestic electrification. The government insists that coal is the cheapest option to close the electrification gap between islands, despite the latest analysis suggesting that renewable energy could be cheaper than coal in 2028 if renewables are built between 2020 and 2022.

This is profoundly worrying, taking into account that, as it powers the country’s projected industrialisation, the energy sector could replace land use as the biggest contributor to emissions. According to the Institute for Essential Service Reform, Indonesia can only stick to its Paris Agreement pledge if it stops building new coal plants from this year onwards. However, the 2019 Indonesia Energy Outlook suggested that coal production is still predicted to rise. At least 39 coal-fired power plants are under construction with another 68 set to roll out. Though Minister Arifin recently revealed the ministry’s plan to replace old coal-fired power plants (aged 20 years and older) with renewable energy, new coal-fired power plant construction and coal production for export still forges ahead.

Most perturbingly, the risks of palm oil and fossil fuel industries impacting negatively on the climate has not been established as common knowledge among the Indonesian public. Added to the “Indonesia 4.0” narrative that is currently headlining many government policies, this rhetoric misleadingly prescribes a specific trajectory for Indonesia’s future: Indonesia that will be deprived and “losing competitive advantage” unless it maximises the production of certain commodities. This distracts people from another possible future: an Indonesia that will be threatened in a world warming more than 2 degrees Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels, where 23 million people could be displaced and others at danger of hunger, water scarcity, disaster and health problems.

Climate crisis: a tricky case

By using this rhetoric, the government can continue to implement counterproductive policies while simultaneously appear to be cooperative with global climate action. This situation spares governments from criticism and pressure to accelerate their emission reduction strategy. Unlike the US or Brazil whose blatant opposition to climate science incites global condemnation, Indonesia can let itself off the hook.

Indonesia is not the first to demonstrate this contradictory behaviour. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose administration has earned a reputation as a climate leader, used the excuse of national interest when he decided to endorse the massively destructive Alberta tar sands megaproject. During an energy conference in Texas, Trudeau mentioned that No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there”.

In a world where world leaders play a big role in determining the fate of our planet, the articulation and communication of environmental issues could not be more crucial. The latest COP 25 in Madrid, which resulted in no bold action due to dissenting voice from several large countries, is an example of climate leadership failure. “Adhering to people’s mandate” and “protecting national security” is now an easy excuse for climate inaction.

How then, can governments around the world get away with this?

First, the climate crisis is highly complex and unique. It is an unprecedented issue where people at all levels of society are impacted. Despite industrialised countries bearing a greater responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, transnational responsibility inevitably sits at the heart of this issue.

Since there is little agreement on distributing the responsibility justly among all nations, governments around the world are passing their responsibilities around like hot potatoes. Prioritisation of home issues like job security and electricity supply, as seen in Indonesia’s case, is therefore excused.

The climate crisis issue also involves both human action and the non-human climate system. By scientific measures, it is difficult to say that extreme weather events are completely human-induced despite the suggested strong linkage. In contrast to that, a threat to national security such as ‘trade war with EU’ can be attributed fully to human action. Consequently, the climate crisis issue looks pale and ambiguous in comparison to a ‘threat to national security’.

Second, the complexity inherent in the climate crisis enables loopholes and simplifications that can be exploited. Unlike other issues, it involves science that is accessible only to the educated few. Scientists and climate activists are still struggling to present the science of climate change in a way that can supplement people’s judgement about their governments’ policies. For many, it is easier to link social deprivation with diesel shortage rather than deforestation.

Indonesians are no exception. There is a big gap in understanding of the climate crisis among Indonesian people. This is even more worrying when the gap is left unaddressed at times of crisis. Unlike other countries, the Indonesian national media is yet to flood headlines with climate crisis issues with an appropriately urgent framing. Climate-related events at a local level, such as drought and flooding, are decoupled from environmental issues happening at the global level. Consequently, it is not surprising that the public does not take a holistic view on those issues.

Moreover, when it is being reported, the climate crisis tends to be framed in sophisticated language and with heavy jargon, giving the impression that this issue demands a certain level of prior understanding of climate science. Concepts such as climate change mitigation, adaptation, low carbon development, net-zero economy, and greenhouse gas impact are not presented in a way that could inform society’s judgement about government policies.

What awaits Indonesia?

Indonesia–and especially its political figures–needs to abandon this nationalist rhetoric in discussing environmental issues. They need to re-couple economic, social and environmental issues instead of treating them as separate matters that do not impact each other. Instead, they could use a just transition to a low carbon economy as an opportunity for self-correction in order to achieve a thriving society in the long run. This means not being afraid to admit that the act of irresponsible extraction of resources, despite its seemingly innocuous intention of developing the nation, is a ticking time bomb threatening the Indonesian people.

Second, along with strengthening its climate policy, the government needs to bridge the gap in climate crisis knowledge. Accessible sources of climate change knowledge have never been more important. The media should also be aware of this and strive to feature more climate-related content. An informed society can drive the government to explore more feasible, less harmful policy options for the long run, such as the huge untapped opportunity in Indonesia’s renewable energy sector. With less backlash from an informed society, a just transition to low carbon consumption will be easier to achieve.

A society with a sufficient understanding of climate crisis can also put pressure on the government to prioritise this issue. The upcoming election could feature more discussion on climate-related policies, as happened in the US with the Green New Deal become one of the central topics in a recent debate of Democratic Party presidential candidates.

Most importantly, Indonesia should not wait for societal pressure to impose a stronger political will for just transition to a zero-carbon society. The science is clear: we are facing a climate emergency and we should waste no time.

The current state of the Indonesian government’s climate policy mirrors what Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg described in her speech during COP 25 last December. The danger no longer lies in climate denial and outright rejection of climate policy; it lies in the illusion of progress when governments pass regulations for climate action on one hand while signing off on fossil fuel expansion and deforestation on another.

More on the changing climate in Southeast Asia

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