Indonesian government yet to spur to action even as toxic air chokes Jakarta

Jakarta’s air pollution has been worsening recently, with the Indonesian capital routinely ranked top of the list of the world’s most polluted major cities.

Haze_Indonesia
A student goes to school wearing a mask to protect him from the smoke that blankets the city of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Jakarta’s recent episode of world-beating air pollution has highlighted what activists describe as belligerent inaction by the Indonesian government to address the source of the problem, even in the face of a ruling by the nation’s top court ordering it to act.

On June 20, readings for PM2.5, a class of airborne pollutants so fine that they can be inhaled and cause respiratory disease, reached 136.9 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) — more than 27 times higher than what the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers safe.

Indonesia’s meteorological agency, the BMKG, recorded even higher PM2.5 readings.

“In the past few days, there’s an increase in the concentration of PM2.5, with the highest [level] reaching 148 µg/m3,” said Urip Haryoko, the acting deputy head of climatology at the BMKG.

In fact, air pollution levels have consistently been so bad throughout June that IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality technology company, ranked Jakarta as the most polluted city on Earth for several days in the month.

The problem isn’t new in this conurbation of some 30 million people. In 2020, as lockdowns and the attendant decline in economic activity drove dramatic improvements in air quality in similar cities like Manila, there was no reprieve from the pollution in Jakarta.

Court ruling to tackle pollution

In September 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled in a citizen lawsuit filed in 2019 against Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and Indonesian President Joko Widodo over the poor air quality. It found in favour of the plaintiffs, who argued that the leaders’ failure to address the problem infringed on their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Since then, however, there’s only been more inaction from both the Jakarta and national governments.

There’s a different sense of urgency to tackle air pollution between the national government and the Jakarta administration. They should be the same.

Bondan Andriyanu, climate and energy campaigner, Greenpeace Indonesia

Bondan Andriyanu, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said that whenever activists pushed for clean air policies in the past, the government always deflected on the grounds of the data presented.

Andono Warih, who heads the Jakarta environmental agency, for instance, questioned the data used by activists in the citizen lawsuit, which was compiled from the air-quality monitoring app AirVisual. Andono said at the time that the numbers weren’t accurate and that conditions were “not that bad.”

On the part of the national government, the environment ministry has said the devices used by Greenpeace Indonesia to measure air quality aren’t accurate because they’re portable and meant primarily for measuring indoor air pollution.

That prompted Greenpeace to start using official data from the environment ministry and local environmental agencies.

“And indeed, their data also show that the air has been unhealthy in the past few days,” Bondan said. “So the government can no longer deny. When the air is unhealthy, it is unhealthy.”

Blame it on the weather

In response to the latest period of air pollution, the Jakarta environmental agency said the problem was due to a combination of low temperatures and high humidity.

“As a result, air pollutants are accumulated in the troposphere,” the lowest layer of the atmosphere, agency spokesman Yogi Ikhwan told local media.

Bondan said this shouldn’t be an excuse to do nothing. He pointed out that the same environmental agency had previously said Jakarta’s air pollution gets worse during the dry season, when temperatures are higher, due to lack of rain to wash the particulate matter out of the atmosphere.

“Don’t always hide behind the argument of weather,” Bondan said. “Because during dry season, it’s always said that [the worsening pollution] is due to heat, but now, the environmental agency said it’s because of low temperature. So when is the government going to talk about efforts to mitigate pollution?”

Bondan added that rather than blame external factors like weather that can’t be controlled, the government should focus on tackling pollution at the source: vehicles, factories and power plants.

These sources aren’t all in Jakarta. Major contributors to the city’s air pollution are the clusters of factories and coal power plants in the neighbouring provinces of Banten, west of the capital, and West Java, to the east.

Fajri Fadhillah, head of environmental pollution at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said these factories and power plants emit sulfur dioxides (SO2), which, when they interact with nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the atmosphere, form PM2.5. These pollutants are then carried by the wind to Jakarta, according to the BMKG.

“Wind pattern shows that there’s a movement of air from the east and northeast toward Jakarta, and [this] affects the accumulation of PM2.5 concentration in this region,” the BMKG’s Urip said.

Transboundary pollution

The Jakarta government has also acknowledged that much of the air pollution in the city is “transboundary” in nature, i.e. that it’s generated outside the city limits, in a separate jurisdiction.

2021 study by the Jakarta environmental agency and the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) found that pollutants were being blown in from the west and northwest of the capital. Those regions are home to industrial estates and coal-fired power plants in Banten province.

2020 study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a think tank, reached the same conclusion, showing that the persistently high levels of PM2.5 pollutants in Jakarta come from coal-fired power plants within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the city.

It identified the main source as the Suralaya industrial estate in Banten. Home to five large coal-fired power plants, Suralaya is the most polluting industrial complex in all of Southeast Asia, based on satellite monitoring of emitted pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

The CREA report noted that PM2.5 levels are higher in Jakarta than in Banten due to the winds carrying the particulate matter east. And with the Suralaya plants operating all year round, including during the partial lockdown in 2020, air quality in Jakarta has remained persistently poor.

But the environment ministry previously denied the fact that pollution in Jakarta comes from surrounding areas.

“Why would smoke from coal-fired power plants travel all the way to Jakarta? Do they want to go to the shopping malls here?”  Dasrul Chaniago, then director of air pollution at the environment ministry, said in a 2018 interview. “Are you sure smoke from power plants in Banten can be carried by the wind to Jakarta? You’re given the ability to think by God. We have logic. We’re not animals.”

When reporters pointed out to him that air moves all the time, in a phenomenon called the wind, thus making it possible for emissions from Banten power plants to reach Jakarta, Dasrul said “that’s bullshit. Why isn’t the wind going from Jakarta to Banten?”

This issue of transboundary pollution could get worse as more coal plants are planned for construction in the vicinity of Jakarta in the coming years. These planned plants will be required to meet emissions standards that are much laxer than regional or global standards.

Jeanny Sirait, a public defender at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta), said there are currently 21 coal plants operating in Banten.

“The weird thing is that the government is still pushing to build nine to 10 more coal plants [in the region],” she said during a recent online press conference.

‘Buying time’

Activists say both the Jakarta and national governments should comply with the Constitutional Court ruling in the citizen lawsuit. That ruling, in addition to ordering the Jakarta government to take measures to address the pollution, also highlighted the transboundary aspect of the problem and accordingly ordered the environment ministry to monitor emissions in Banten and West Java.

“Yes, Jakarta has to be monitored, but we also have to pay attention to Banten and West Java,” Bondan said. “They also have to be responsible [for the air pollution in Jakarta].”

He called for a definitive study of the sources of pollution in Banten and West Java, which would hold the two provincial governments as well as the national government accountable for the transboundary pollution entering Jakarta.

“The least the neighbouring provinces could do is identify the sources of their emissions,” Bondan said. “Right now, the data isn’t there. So we’re always debating [with the government]. That’s the problem. The government keeps denying [that there’s transboundary pollution problem].”

But in the nearly 10 months since the court ruling, the only action the national government under President Widodo has taken is to file an appeal against the ruling.

Jeanny from the legal aid institute described this as an effort to “buy time” so that the Widodo administration could keep delaying its responsibility for carrying out the ruling and ensuring clean air for citizens — something it is constitutionally required to provide anyway, she pointed out.

“This appeal doesn’t violate any law, but what it does is violate the rights of Jakarta citizens to health and clean air,” Jeanny said.

She cited a new Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report, developed by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), showing that air pollution slashes three to four years off Jakarta citizens’ life expectancy.

“This means that people’s lives are at stake,” Jeanny said. “Despite this, the central government decided to buy time by filing an appeal.”

‘Different sense of urgency’

Fajri from the environmental law centre also said the national government should address the transboundary aspect of the problem rather than waste time on an appeal. Without the national government stepping in, the governments of Banten and West Java will have no reason to reduce the pollution generated in their provinces, he said.

“If I were the governor of Banten or West Java, and emissions [from my province] were a problem for other provinces, I would benefit from it,” Fajri said. “I would get the benefit in the form of local income from development activities, but I wouldn’t get the bad environmental impacts. So I wouldn’t have any incentive to do more [to tackle air pollution].”

Unlike the national government, the Jakarta government under Governor Anies has opted not to appeal the ruling. Even so, it has done little since last September to address the problem, Jeanny said.

Fajri said the governors of all three provinces could impose stricter limits on emissions from power plants as well as vehicles. The Jakarta government could also improve public transportation now that more people are commuting to work following two years of pandemic-related mobility restrictions, he said.

Fajri added these are things that the provincial governments can do immediately, without having to wait for the national government to act.

And if the provincial governments do issue policies to tackle air pollution, such as limiting the number of vehicles on the road, the least the national government could do is not sabotage these efforts, Bondan of Greenpeace said.

That’s effectively what the Widodo administration did last year when it waived the sales tax for compact cars to encourage vehicle purchases as part of wider efforts to boost the pandemic-hit economy. This policy, Bondan said, hamstrung the Jakarta government’s own efforts to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads and the resultant emissions.

He said the Widodo government’s continued defiance of the Constitutional Court ruling had caused “a bottleneck” for the Anies government in Jakarta, leaving it “unable to do much if the national government doesn’t support it.”

“There’s a different sense of urgency [to tackle air pollution] between the national government and the Jakarta administration,” Bondan said. “They should be the same.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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