Columns, Opinion

Worldview: Indonesian deforestation and the palm oil dilemma

The concepts of pollution and greenhouse gas emission tend to evoke an image of smoke billowing from Chinese factories or traffic congestion on an American highway, but these are not the sole examples of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Deforestation and land use, while commonly identified as being bad for the environment, are direct sources of carbon dioxide emission as well. Trees, which store carbon, release it back into the atmosphere when they are cut down, and the use of fertilizers and livestock also create emissions.

Jonah Busch, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, articulated this, saying: “In climate in general, forests are underappreciated, not given enough attention, and marginalized in policy. When a lot of people think about climate and greenhouse gas emissions, they only think about emissions from fossil fuels.”

In no country is this neglect less evident than Indonesia — the sprawling archipelago nation home to the fourth largest population in the world. Indonesia is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the largest contributor of forest-based emissions, contributing nearly half of the world’s land use and forestry carbon dioxide emissions. With land use responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon pollution emissions, Indonesia’s role in affecting global climate is far more significant than we might initially presume.

The international community, however, is far from ignorant on this issue, and has been giving Indonesia significant flak for its inability to make serious progress toward decreasing land and forest based emissions. Even Indonesia’s attempts to confront the issue are met with cynicism. Ratri Kusumohartono, forest advocate with Greenpeace Indonesia, said at the Paris Climate Agreement that “… in spite of these commitments, the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests … shows no sign of slowing down.”

President Joko Widodo is clearly aware of the pressure facing his regime to act, and has committed to a 29–41 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by way of a submission of a plan to the United Nations. The World Resources Institute analyzed the plan and came to the conclusion that while it is a good baseline, Indonesia’s plan will not be sufficient if it wants to meet its expectations for 2030. If Indonesia wants to meet this goal, it will have to reduce land and forest based emissions by 80 percent, which, given current circumstances, seems unlikely.

Western observers are puzzled by this; the cost of adopting clean energy sources and reducing pollution diminishes by the day, and yet Indonesia continues to drag its feet and forge ahead with deforestation, as well as its reliance on coal.

The excuse can’t be that Indonesia has decided to prioritize economic growth over environmental sustainability. First of all, other countries of comparable economic standings have enacted reforms aimed at reducing land and forest based emissions, such as Brazil and India. Busch echoed this: “You can’t say it’s impossible to reduce deforestation; you have this example of another country that has done it. If one country can do it, [Indonesia] can do it.”

Furthermore, the effects of this national procrastination are having a detrimental effect on the economy, not just in the distant future. Newly established palm oil and rubber plantations have a significant warming effect on the surrounding region, which can affect water supply and make the region more susceptible to forest fires.

Palm oil, however, proves to be an extremely profitable good in the world market, and it currently accounts for 10 percent of Indonesia’s exports. With the demand for cooking oils expected to continue rising, palm oil has significant advantages over soybeans because it takes up far less land area to  cultivate. Consequently, soybean production — which Brazil specializes in — is decreasing in favor of palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia. Therefore, while Brazil can afford to invest in anti-deforestation measures, Indonesia has much less of an incentive given the rise in demand for its primary export, especially from neighboring powers India and China.  

Neoliberalism and global trade seem to be inherently incompatible with the dictates of the Paris Climate Agreement. In this light, it is quite surprising that the only main casualties of the agreement (as of such) have been the United States’ departure and Indonesia’s less than stellar progress. However, as the optimism from Paris fades into history, we are faced with the age-old question that pits economic growth against environmental sustainability. Which shall we choose?

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