Indonesia won’t ‘sacrifice economy’ for deeper emissions cuts

The country is one of the world’s biggest emitters, largely through deforestation, and is on track to increase its absolute volume of emissions by 2030 while still achieving its targeted reductions as a proportion of its baseline.

Deforestation Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia
Army officers extinguish fires in peatland areas outside Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Deforestation is the country's leading source of emissions. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 2.0

Indonesia will not set a more ambitious emissions reduction target to counter increasingly dire climate change projections, saying it wants to focus instead on its economic growth.

The Southeast Asian country is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters and also a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Under that framework, it has committed to reducing emissions by 29 per cent from the business-as-usual scenario by 2030, or 41 per cent with international assistance.

But those commitments, even if met, will still see the planet on track for a 3.2° Celsius (5.8° Fahrenheit) average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned last year. Indonesian officials at the time considered boosting the country’s emissions reduction target to 45 per cent, but have since decided to stick with their lower target.

Medrilzam, the head of the environmental department at the Ministry of National Development Planning, said this was agreed on in a cabinet meeting.

“This has been linked to our economic [growth] targets,” he said at a recent discussion in Jakarta. “These numbers will become our reference for the next five years.

“Do we want to run after emissions reduction only and sacrifice the economy?” he added. “Do we want to cancel all coal mining contracts?”

Alue Dohong, the deputy minister for environment and forestry, acknowledged that Indonesia’s climate pledge, or nationally determined contribution (NDC), isn’t enough to help cap the global temperature rise by 2°C (3.6°F) needed to stave off catastrophic climate change impacts. But the same applies to other countries that have also signed on to the Paris Agreement, he said.

Do we want to run after emissions reduction only and sacrifice the economy? Do we want to cancel all coal mining contracts?

Medrilzam, director for the environment, Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning (Bappenas)

“That’s why there was an issue [of more ambitious climate pledges] raised,” he said. “We don’t want to raise our ambitions. We want to focus on our current target.

“Our principle is to carry out what’s already decided first, that’s what we asked in Madrid,” he added, referring to last year’s UN climate summit, where top emitters were asked to make deeper cuts. “Even with the existing [targets], some of them haven’t been carried out. How do you want to increase [the targets]?”

Alue said the onus should be on developed countries to commit to more ambitious climate targets. He cited the Kyoto Protocol, the previous global treaty on emissions reductions, which set binding targets for developed countries and voluntary ones for developing nations.

Moekti Handajani Soejachmoen, a senior climate negotiator for the Indonesian government, agreed that it’s better for Indonesia to focus on making sure it meets its stated climate target rather than commit to a new goal. However, she said there needs to be a detailed plan for achieving this.

Indonesia initially planned to submit the final and approved version of its updated climate action plan to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by March.

As of April 13, however, the government has not submitted its updated action plan. It’s main focus for now is dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Nur Masripatin, a senior adviser to the environment minister. She said the updated action plan is awaiting the president’s signature. The plan will reflect recent policy changes around a biodiesel mandate and electric vehicles, among others.

“There are no details on who will do what and when and how,” Moekti said. “If we increase the target now, it’s likely that the work of delegating responsibility will not be finished. And if we’re talking globally, there’s only very few countries that explicitly say they will increase their targets.”

At least 107 countries have indicated they may raise their emissions reduction targets, accounting for 15.1 per cent of global emissions, according to data from Climate Watch, an online platform managed by the World Resources Institute.

Climate risks

Climate experts have criticised Indonesia’s decision not to deepen its carbon cuts, saying the country is both a major emitter and especially prone to climate change impacts.

By sticking to its current plan, Indonesia could exceed its target in terms of the proportion of emissions reduced, while still doubling the absolute volume of emissions, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an initiative by Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute that tracks government actions and policies.

The tracker rates Indonesia’s climate pledge as “highly insufficient,” meaning that even if the country meets its target, it won’t be enough to slow global warming to below 2°C. Instead, Indonesia’s pledge is in line with warming of 3-4°C (5.4-7.2°F).

“Indonesia’s efforts will not be able to save people from climate disasters,” said Greenpeace Indonesia energy and climate researcher Adila Isfandiari. “The current global temperature increase of 1°C [1.8°F] has already increased meteorological disasters drastically.”

She cited data from the country’s disaster mitigation agency, BNPB, which show how the intensity of disasters such as floods and droughts have increased in the past five years, from 1,967 cases nationwide in 2014, to 3,721 cases in 2019. A study by the research group Crowther Lab found that cities in the tropics are likely to see the strongest impacts from climate change, even as they experience smaller changes in average temperature.

The study, looking at 520 major cities worldwide, found that Jakarta would be among those facing “unprecedented” climate shifts by 2050, including changes in rainfall patterns that would lead to more severe floods and droughts. Record-breaking rainfall that battered Jakarta earlier this year prompted one of the worst floods in the city’s history, affecting millions of people and paralysing economic activity.

“Indonesia is highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and, as a big emitter of greenhouse gases, would be better placed to decarbonise its economy instead of opting for coal,” said Ursula Fuentes Hutfilter, a senior climate policy adviser at Climate Analytics.

She called the government’s decision to not raise its target “extremely disappointing, especially given that Indonesia has tremendous potential to scale up its climate action to decarbonise its economy.”

By decarbonising — transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy — in the three key areas of electricity supply, road and rail transport, and forestry and land use, Indonesia could significantly decrease its emissions by 2030, Hutfilter said. Those sectors account for about 70 per cent of Indonesia’s emissions, which could be cut by 20 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2010 levels), according to a recent report from the Climate Action Tracker.

This stands in stark contrast to the currently projected 58-68 per cent emissions increase under Indonesia’s climate pledge.

Hutfilter said decarbonising the three sectors would also create jobs, reduce air pollution and peat fires, conserve biodiversity, reduce traffic congestion in urban centers, promote resource independence, and increase electrification of remote areas.

Climate Action Tracker’s analysis is in line with findings by the planning ministry and WRI Indonesia that show how Indonesia could actually grow its economy more than projected if it adopts a low-carbon development model.

Those findings project a nearly 43 per cent emissions cut by 2030, with annual GDP growth of 5.6 per cent during that period, rising to 6 per cent through 2015.

That would add more than $5.4 trillion to Indonesia’s GDP in 2045, while its income per capita, currently lower than the world average, would increase to nearly $17,000, placing the country in the group of developed economies.

Nur, the environment ministry adviser, said the Covid-19 pandemic had led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia through forcing the widespread shutdown of industrial and transportation activity. She said she hoped this would contribute to the country’s emissions reduction target.

“With the current [emission cut] commitment, we can only [our] emissions to limit global warming to 3°C (5.4°F),” Nur said. “So with Covid-19, hopefully we can pay our debt [in cutting our emissions more ambitiously].”

But any climate progress as a result of the Covid-19-driven economic slowdown will be temporary, said Mahawan Karuniasa, a climate expert from the University of Indonesia. He said Indonesia’s economy remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, particularly coal, and therefore its emissions will bounce right back up once economic activity resumes in earnest.

“Our economy is predicted to be corrected and we will want to return” to positive economic growth, said Mahawan, who also chairs the Indonesian Climate Change and Forestry (APIK) network. “So I’m worried that [the Covid-19 crisis] will not be a blessing [for reducing emissions] because after this, we will ramp up our economic activities and our emissions will [increase] beyond our quota.”

The government has slashed its economic growth forecast for 2020 by more than half as the pandemic takes a tool on Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

Energy-related emissions

Medrilzam, from the planning ministry, said that while he supports the idea of “deep decarbonisation,” the government needs to strike a delicate balance between reducing emissions and growing the economy. He said it’s not easy for the planning ministry to convince other ministries to deepen emissions cuts in their sectors, particularly the energy sector, beyond what’s already been agreed to.

“Each sector has their own authority, and convincing them that we need [to shift to] renewable energy isn’t easy,” he said.

The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, for instance, objected when other ministries asked for more ambitious renewable energy targets, Medrilzam said. Its argument was that if the target was raised, “then we’ll die,” according to Medrilzam.

He said there needs to be a strong approach to engage sectors that are unwilling to adopt more ambitious targets, including from outside Indonesia. “What’s important is that we can still see a balance between emissions [reduction] and the economy,” he said.

Climate experts and environment ministry officials agree that there’s still room for more ambitious emissions reductions in the energy sector, which are poised to overtake deforestation and land-use change as Indonesia’s leading source of emissions. The country’s energy consumption growth is among the fastest in the world, with coal accounting for 62 per cent of the energy mix and renewables just 12 per cent.

According to the planning ministry, the energy sector accounted for 38 per cent of Indonesia’s total emissions in 2010; the figure is expected to rise to 60 per cent by 2030. The contribution from land-use change, excluding peat fires, is expected to drop during that same period from 53 per cent to 31 per cent.

Driving the emissions increase is the burning of coal; the fossil fuel is expected to generate 27 gigawatts of the 35 GW in additional capacity planned by the government. The government says this is needed as it eyes average annual GDP of 6 per cent over the next five years, up from 5 per cent since 2014.

“Six percent economic growth is nothing to sneeze at,” Medrilzam said. “It will need a huge amount of energy, especially because [the government will] push manufacturing. The use of coal will increase and the share of renewables will decrease.

“Previously we assumed that renewables would increase to more than 19 gigawatts in five years,” he added. But with a 6 per cent GDP target, “the share of renewable energy will have to increase to more than 24 gigawatts.” That’s unrealistic at the current pace at which renewable projects are going online in Indonesia, and means that more coal will have to be burned to make up the difference.

Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, the environment ministry’s director general of climate change control, said there was more room for emissions cuts in the energy sector than in the land-use and forestry sectors. Emissions in the latter need to go down by 70 per cent under Indonesia’s current goals, including through slowing deforestation and boosting reforestation; the energy sector, meanwhile, only needs to achieve a 19 per cent emissions reduction.

“They still have quite a large window for cuts,” Ruandha said. “Right now, they can achieve their target with little effort.”

A coalition of NGOs has called on the government to implement a moratorium on new coal power plant permits and review the plan to add 27 GW of coal-fired electricity to the grid. In a letter they sent to the environment ministry in February, they also called on the government to come up with a plan to phase out coal entirely.

Arief Wijaya, a senior manager for climate and forests at WRI Indonesia, said reducing emissions in the energy sector is the key for Indonesia to meet its climate goals and grow its economy.

“The point is the government has to be more ambitious and faster in energy transformation, meaning phasing out coal plants,” he said.

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