One of the most populous countries in the world, Indonesia goes to the polls next Wednesday (14) to choose a new president. The result of the election will be important in the fight against climate change, as the country is the third largest producer of coal in the world and is home to one of the largest tropical forests on the planet.
You can see signs of these superlative features in the capital, Jakarta. Amid the tall buildings and the chaotic traffic typical of a metropolis, there are leafy trees dotted with flowers that perfume the surrounding air with a sweet smell. At the same time, especially on dry days, a thick layer of pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels and garbage clouds the landscape and bothers the eyes.
The Southeast Asian nation is a good example to portray the challenges of an emerging country that needs to make the energy transition, at the same time as it must conserve the forest and enable economic development.
The majority of its energy comes from fossil fuels, led by coal (30.3%), followed by oil (28.9%) and natural gas (14.4%), according to 2021 data from the IEA (International Energy Agency). ). Considering only electrical energy, the dependence on coal becomes even more explicit, corresponding to more than 60% of the total used.
For Marlistya Citraningrum, manager of the sustainable energy access program at the Indonesian NGO IESR (Institute for Essential Services Reform), the biggest difficulty for the energy transition is getting rid of the “addiction to coal”, which is the most polluting of all fossil fuels.
“Indonesia is an emerging economy seeking to climb the ladder — as current president Joko Widodo promised at the beginning of his term [em 2014]”, says the expert, adding that the country currently has annual economic growth of less than 5%.
She says that since the term of the previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who governed from 2004 to 2014, the country has been investing heavily in coal-fired power plants to expand the population’s access to energy. According to data from the Mapbiomas Indonesia platform, coal mines increased by 334% from 2000 to 2022.
“Almost 20 years later, Indonesia is hooked on coal and the energy transition has slowly become part of the mainstream energy discourse [aproximadamente desde 2018]but policies and implementation are even slower”, says Citraningrum.
In addition to energy security, coal and gas are also important to the Indonesian economy, accounting for almost 20% of exports, while coal royalties were the source of around 3% of government revenue in 2021.
“Indonesia’s issue is not necessarily technical-economic”, says Agus Sari, one of the authors of the most recent report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), linked to the UN. “It’s a question of politics and political economy.”
“As is the case in many other developing countries, those who set public policy typically either have a coal-fired power plant or coal mines. Or their political campaigns are financed by coal mining companies. And so it’s not easy for them to say , ‘let’s leave coal aside and adopt renewable energy'”, he explains.
Furthermore, the country’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is deforestation.
Despite a substantial reduction in deforestation in the last decade, forest clearing — mainly associated with the production of commodities of agricultural origin, such as palm oil, cellulose, wood, rubber, coffee and cocoa — represents 33.8% of total carbon issued in the country.
Energy accounts for 44% of emissions and agriculture accounts for 10.4%.
“Indonesia needs to be able to say that enough is enough. That we will stop cutting down more forests and we will just use areas that are already open, use them as much as possible. Step up [a produtividade] instead of expanding [a área desmatada]”, says Sari. “We are already the largest producer of palm oil in the world. Why should we keep opening more areas?”
Covered superficially in the political campaigns of the three presidential candidates, the climate crisis does not appear to be a polarizing or decisive issue for this election.
Running are Ganjar Pranowo, who belongs to the country’s largest party, and independent Anies Baswedan, both former governors in their 50s, and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a 72-year-old former commander of the armed forces who is a third attempt to reach the Presidency and leads the voting intention polls.
The current president, Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) has already governed for a decade and, therefore, cannot run for re-election.
“I would say that none of them are really serious about the energy transition or climate change,” says Sari, who says he believes Baswedan is the best informed on the subject, while Subianto is the most committed to the coal industry.
“In the government’s plans, Baswedan takes the strongest position on climate action within the concept of ‘justice’ — differentiating them from the other two, who lean more towards economic development. All three candidates explicitly mention phasing out of coal”, analyzes Marlistya Citraningrum, from IESR.
She adds that only two presidential candidates have renewable energy targets: Baswedan, with a 22% to 25% share of renewable energy in electricity generation by 2029, and Pranowo, with 25% to 30% of renewable energy in the total energy matrix by 2029.
Subianto’s group seems to perceive climate and energy issues from a business and sovereignty point of view, in accordance with the policy adopted by Jokowi, she analyzes.
“Its main renewable energy choice is bioenergy, including biodiesel and aviation biofuel, and it refers to other renewable energy as ‘alternative green energy’. This is concerning given Indonesia’s poor record of land conflict and rising deforestation”, explains the researcher.
However, experts point out that the potential for renewable sources in the country goes far beyond these possibilities.
“The use of renewable energy in Indonesia is so minimal that the opportunity to use it is simply enormous,” points out Sari, who is also president of Landscape Indonesia, an environmental and natural resources consultancy.
“The biggest opportunity is with solar energy,” he says. As a tropical country, there is no lack of sunlight, nor is there a lack of space to install the signs, whether on land or in water. “With new technology for floating solar panels, as 70% of our country’s water is ocean water, it is easy to cover the sea with solar panels.”
Last year, a floating solar energy plant was inaugurated on the reservoir of a hydroelectric plant on the island of Java, the third largest of its kind in the world. The venture is a partnership between the Indonesian state energy company and the state-owned Masdar, from the United Arab Emirates.
Other promising sources, according to the researcher, would be geothermal and hydroelectric.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) points out that, although there are plans to phase out coal in the country, concrete measures have not yet been taken to implement them.
The Indonesian government even set targets of having a 23% renewable share in its energy matrix by 2025 and 31% by 2050, but later reduced the ambition, setting the objective of just 17% to 19% of the renewable matrix by 2025. Despite Furthermore, the Ministry of Energy has not abandoned the goal of having 70% renewable energy by 2060.
A 2022 Jokowi decree banned the development of new coal-fired power plants — except for those already included in the development plan of the state utility, PLN. This standard requires the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to develop a roadmap for the early closure of existing coal-fired power plants.
Both the Energy department and the head of the Fair Energy Transition Partnership in Indonesia were contacted by the report to discuss the progress of plans to abandon fossil fuels, but did not respond.
Irena’s analysis also states that the share of renewable energy in Indonesia’s energy mix was 13% last year, growing only around 0.5% annually over the last five years.
In contrast, neighboring Vietnam managed to surpass its energy development plan target of installing 6 GW of solar and wind power by 2025, reaching an astonishing 21.8 GW of solar and wind power in 2023.
The reporter traveled at the invitation of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.