Jokowi Wins: This Could Turn Out to be the Biggest Climate News of 2014

By Climate Advisers
Forests & Lands

Last week, Indonesia’s General Elections Commission finally announced that Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has won Indonesia’s presidential election. He will lead the world’s third largest democracy come October.

We’ll leave it to others to discuss how the win by Jokowi – the reformist no-nonsense “man of the people” – against Prabowo – the ex-son-in-law of dictator Suharto, a multi-millionaire well traversed in Indonesia’s traditional “transactional politics”, and an ex-general with a record of human rights abuse – is generally good news for Indonesia’s democracy and the future of its quarter billion people.

We’ll focus instead on a secondary yet hugely important question: What does Jokowi’s win mean for the world’s climate? The short answer: Possibly a huge deal. Here’s why.

On Half-Full Glasses and Turning Ships

Few are aware that, by some measures, Indonesia’s carbon emissions are the third largest in the world after China and the United States. About two-thirds come from the destruction of carbon rich rainforests and peatlands, mostly for expansion of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, timber plantations or mining operations (including the doubly damaging “rainforest coal”).

In 2009, Indonesia pledged to cut emissions by up to 41% relative to “business-as-usual” by 2020. Of the 1.2 billion tons CO2 to be cut annually – more than Germany’s total carbon emissions – about 90% is planned to come from reduced forest and peat destruction (“REDD+” in climate lingo). In 2010, Norway responded by pledging to pay up to $1 billion if Indonesia reduces its emissions.

Four years later – where is Indonesia heading on deforestation and carbon emissions? There are two diametrically opposed answers to this question.

The “glass-half-empty” camp looks at deforestation rates and sees failure. Recent studies have confirmed that the loss of natural forests has dramatically increased in the last couple of years. Deforestation is now higher in Indonesia than in Brazil, in part due to Brazil’s 80% reduction over the last decade – the largest emission reductions anywhere anytime. Absent dramatic and immediate reforms, Indonesia’s deforestation rates are unlikely to plunge any time soon. Heru Prasetyo, the minister in charge of enacting those reforms as head of the newly established REDD+ Agency, recently presented the following map of the projected deforestation from already issued concessions to clear forests (e.g. for timber, palm oil, mining etc):


The map may exaggerate the worst-case-scenario, since not all existing concessions will be fully cleared. On the other hand, new concessions are also being issued that are not captured. What is imminently clear is that there is already years of additional deforestation “in the system” and that the current trajectory is one of catastrophic consequence for the Indonesian people, Indonesia’s natural capital and the world’s climate.

The “glass-half-full” view – which we share – looks not only at the disturbing deforestation data, but also takes into account the dramatic systemic changes and leadership that is taking place. Frances Seymour, previously the head of the Center for International Forestry Research and now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has referred to the deal with Norway as the most significant game changer for Indonesia’s forests in the last 25 years.

If you want to understand where a super tanker is headed, you can’t just look at its path in the last hour – you need to know if the steering wheel has been turned to a new direction. There are lots of indications that the wheel is turning, even if the ship hasn’t finished changing direction yet. Here’s what we see below the surface:

  1. Disruptive transparency that “exposes the mess.” The extent of the concessions that had been given out was previously not known. For the first time, all the data from different ministries are being collected in a joint “One Map” for more integrated decision-making and made publicly available, even allowing for communities to provide inputs.
  2. Fundamental land-use reforms. The “moratorium” on new concessions in primary forests and peat, enacted in 2011 and extended at least until 2015, is a good starting point. A review of existing concessions, many of which were issued illegally, is under way. Land swaps are being considered to protect forest areas under legal concessions.
  3. Ending impunity. The President’s special reform unit and the anti-corruption unit have embarked on a review of existing concessions and a comprehensive law enforcement campaign. It is following the money, with fines up to $ 9 million and executives being jailed.
  4. Indigenous rights. Following an unprecedented government announcement to respect indigenous rights in 2011, a landmark court ruling in 2013 gave indigenous peoples formal right to their customary lands. Indigenous claims are being included in the government’s One Map initiative to avoid concessions on indigenous lands.
  5. Private sector sea change. Large and powerful companies have gone from opponents to critical allies of the reformers following groundbreaking new zero deforestation policies covering more than half the globally traded palm oil and Indonesia’s largest paper producer. They need reforms to deliver on own commitments and to create a level playing field.

These remarkable developments are reminiscent of the strategies that helped Brazil’s deforestation rate plummet in a way no one thought possible. Outgoing President Yudhoyono deserves credit for setting the vision, putting some of his best reformers on the job and for taking political risks by giving them space to initiate reforms. Yet, he didn’t go far enough. The next president must make some tough choices to stem the deforestation inertia.

The Jokowi Forest Agenda

There are three big reasons forest advocates and observers should be excited about a Jokowi presidency.

First, while environmental issues didn’t feature strongly during the campaign, the things he did say were good, even if lacking specifics. (See Loren Bell’s excellent summary here.) He stated that Indonesia has “pursued economic growth too aggressively and not paid attention to the environment.” He wants to “eradicate illegal logging” and “enforce environmental laws,” including by deploying drones to combat illegal logging and mining. He wants to restore 2 million hectares of degraded forests a year. He also wants to conserve and protect the remaining 20 million hectares of forests, an indication he may extend the forest moratorium. He also pledged to continue the One Map initiative.

Second, Jokowi agreed to implement the reforms requested by the indigenous peoples’ organization AMAN, including implementing the Constitutional Court decision granting land rights to indigenous peoples. In return Jokowi received AMAN’s endorsement and active campaign support, the first presidential candidate ever to do so.

The third and perhaps most important reason for optimism relates not to his stance on the environment but his vision for good governance and social justice. To reduce emissions in Indonesia, what matters is not what the president thinks about climate change but what he or she does to tackle governance issues. His entire platform rests on tackling corruption and red tape and increasing transparency. As governor of Jakarta, he put his meetings up on Youtube. Last week he took the distinctly un-Javanese move to “crowdsource” his cabinet by suggesting three candidates per position and asking for the input of the people. Such measures have clear elements of populist symbolism. But it may also be a way to limit his exposure to pressure that he assign cabinet posts as political spoils.

Jokowi surely won’t turn the Indonesian supertanker over night. His coalition does not hold a majority in parliament, and he may need to learn to play the political game of favors to get things done. Even with the right reforms, deforestation is unlikely to decline immediately given the sheer inertia.

But it’s hard to see how one could have asked for a president more aligned with the anti-deforestation agenda than Jokowi. This could have huge positive impact for millions of Indonesians – and the global climate. Recently, Mr. Prasetyo said Indonesia would need $5 billion to meet their 2020 targets. This may sound like a lot of money, but it’s equivalent to a carbon price of just a few dollars a ton, to achieve the equivalent emission reductions of Germany going carbon neutral.

An upcoming Climate Advisers policy brief will go into greater depth on the achievements, challenges, and opportunities for Indonesian REDD+. In a future blog post we’ll come back to what the international community should do to support Jokowi, should he prove that he’s up to the challenge.

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On July 30, 2014

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