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.
On Monday the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert O. Blake Jr., announced in Jakarta the federal government will contribute at least $2.75 million to help Indonesians address the fires and haze and prevent future conflagrations. The White House also issued a fact sheet noting the U.S. was working to improve forest and peatland management on more than 19.7 million acres in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh, Kalimantan, and Papua, and to train Indonesian scientists to inform the nation’s future climate policies.
The U.S. funding announced Monday will include money to help respond to haze-related respiratory illnesses, provide protective gear for firefighters and monitoring of the blazes through the U.S. Forest Service’s remote sensing and imaging systems. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said administration officials “stand ready” to discuss additional aid.
“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 chief executive 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.”
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama and Widodo both said they were committed to cutting the world’s carbon output.
“One of the main topics we discussed was the issue of climate change,” Obama said, “and why it’s so important that large countries like ours work together to arrive at the strongest possible set of targets and international agreements when we arrive in Paris just a little over a month from now.”
Widodo said that while both men wanted to address “this issue for the sake of our future generations,” Indonesia was also focused on a more immediate climate concern. “We have peat fires, and the efforts to extinguish it is quite challenging,” he said.
Originally scheduled to visit in June, the Indonesian president was elected in July 2014 on a populist platform aimed at the rural poor. The trip was aimed at making the case to business leaders that his country is open to American investment, though Widodo had to scrap a meeting in San Francisco with tech-sector chief executives. He still went ahead with a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington Monday.
“Indonesia is an open economy,” Widodo told reporters, adding his country intends to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade accord encompassing a dozen Pacific Rim dozen including the United States.
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 that “Indonesia as a strong global player.”
“A large part of the importance of this trip is symbolic,” Miller added, noting the very image of Widodo meeting in the Oval Office 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 Indonesian 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.
Read more in Energy & Environment:
For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.