ASG Vice President Meredith Miller Puts Indonesian President Joko Widodo's U.S. Visit Into Context In an Interview With the Washington Post

Indonesia’s climate crisis rages as its president meets with Obama on Monday

By Juliet Eilperin and Chris Mooney

Monday’s Oval Office meeting between President Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as “Jokowi,” offers the nation where Obama once lived a chance to elevate its profile and appeal to foreign investors. But as raging forest and peatland fires in Indonesia pour huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the environmental destruction highlights the challenge both leaders face in curbing climate change.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz noted this is Widodo’s “first visit to Washington since taking office, and I do expect them to discuss climate.” In view of the U.N. climate talks in Paris later this year, Schultz added, as “two of the world’s largest democracies, [this is] an area that the two countries can work together.”

At the moment, however, Indonesian officials are scrambling to contain fires that, one researcher estimates, have released more carbon dioxide equivalent emissions than Japan does in a year by burning fossil fuels —- emissions so voluminous that on several days this year they have surpassed the daily emissions output of the entire U.S. economy. The burning has generated a toxic haze that has settled not only over parts of Indonesia but Malaysia and Singapore, as well, and has killed at least 10 people.

This year’s El Nino weather pattern, along with the clearing of forests and draining of carbon-rich peatlands have fueled the blazes: On Friday, Widodo said he will ban the commercial destruction of any more peatlands, but it is unclear how easily he can enforce the new policy.

“As Presidents Obama and Jokowi meet, much of Indonesia and Southeast Asia will be choking on smoke from fires set to clear forests for farming,” said Nigel Purvis, president and CEO of the Washington-based consulting firm Climate Advisers. “In 2009, President Jokowi’s predecessor pledged that Indonesia would reduce deforestation dramatically. That hasn’t happened yet. The stars are aligning for President Jokowi to deliver now, and this will be a test of his climate leadership.”

Widodo, who was originally scheduled to visit in June, was elected in July 2014 on a populist platform aimed at the rural poor, will be making the case to business leaders that his country is open to American investment. After stopping in Washington, where he will be feted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he is headed to San Francisco to meet with tech-sector CEOs.

Meredith Miller, vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group, said in an interview that business outreach is “a huge focus” of his trip, along with the broader goal of projecting “Indonesia as a strong global player.”

“A large part of the importance of this trip is symbolic,” Miller added, noting that the very photo of Widodo standing with Obama — with whom Indonesians feel a special connection — “will send a powerful message. Having that kind of recognition in the White House is very important.”

But environmentalists will raise questions about the Indonesian leader’s climate record while he is at the White House. And Widodo’s recent announcement suggests that he is aware of the global scrutiny he will face during his U.S. tour.

“People think about climate, they only think about smokestacks and tailpipes, and this is obviously the biggest climate story on the planet right now,” said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director at Greenpeace USA. “What’s urgently needed is a total rethink of the way that the country is doing land management on its peatlands.”

Indeed, Indonesia’s current carbon crisis serves as a kind of exclamation point to a long-standing problem in the country — deforestation and other land-use changes contribute much more toward its carbon emissions than do fossil fuels. According to data from the World Resources Institute, in 2012 Indonesia emitted 760 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents if you don’t include the effects of deforestation and other changes to land but 1,981 million tons (or 1.98 gigatons) if you do.

This year, Indonesia’s total emissions will surely be higher than that, as peat fires alone have contributed an estimated 1.6 gigatons. While Indonesia has long ranked among the world’s top 10 emitting countries when deforestation and other non-fossil fuel emissions are taken into account, this year it may rank in the top five or even the top three. (In 2012, according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute, China and the United States led the pack with 10.68 and 5.82 gigatons of total emissions, followed by India and Russia at 2.88 and 2.25 gigatons, respectively.)

The core problem is that Indonesia is home to a huge repository of the world’s carbon rich peatlands — 5 percent of them overall, according to one estimate. And when these lands are cleared or drained for agricultural purposes, then the decomposition of peat — and, as in this year, its mass burning — can contribute gigantic volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

One recent study estimated that from 2000 to 2010, the clearing of Indonesian forests for palm oil, timber, and other purposes led to 8.59 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions due to loss of trees and degradation of peatlands.

Moreover, explains VU University Amsterdam global fire expert Guido van der Werf, Indonesia peat fires represent a special kind of carbon problem. In the case of many fires around the world, there is little or no net addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, as trees and vegetation grow back afterward and store carbon once again. But the carbon stored in peat has built up over thousands of years and would not be put back in the same way, at least not any time soon — thus, for these Indonesia fires, the carbon is, in a sense, headed on a one-way trip to the atmosphere.

Wimar Witoelar, an Indonesian political commentator and adjunct professor at Australia’s Deakin University, said Widodo has resolved to get the fires under control.

“He’s getting more determined as the fires become worse, because of course he feels very bad, and very guilty, and quite angry,” Witoelar said.

But it is unclear how much progress Widodo can make. Many of the world’s most important consumer companies have pledged not to use palm oil associated with deforestation, providing a strong economic incentive for a shift in policy, and Norway already pledged $1 billion to help Indonesia address the problem.

Six years ago, Widodo’s predecessor pledged that Indonesia would cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2020 by 26 percent compared with its business-as-usual trajectory, and with sufficient outside aid, it would cut them 41 percent. But according to a Climate Advisers analysis of data from WRI, the European Union and other sources, its forest and land-use patterns have remained largely unchanged between 2004 and 2014. About 1 percent of Indonesia’s tree cover — 3.7 million acres, more than the size of Connecticut — is removed every year.

Skar said that while Widodo’s new peatlands measure has promise, the details of how it is executed is essential. “It has to be acknowledged that Indonesia is facing some serious challenges relating to corruption, chaos and lack of capacity,” he said.


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