Of haze, biofuels, and climate change: Indonesia’s ‘complex problem’

Updated On: Nov 03, 2006

President SBY’s new admission is that he faces complex problems.

To manage the country’s current governance woes, SBY has formed a presidential working team on September 29 for program, policy and reform management. The team comprises former attoney general Marsilam Simanjuntak as its chairman, who is assisted by Agus Wijoyo and Edwin Parengkuan.

While SBY did not reveal the nature of the ‘complex problems’, he commented during a press interview that he needed the team to see that all the government's programs and agenda are being carried out properly and well.

The presidential move has met with some criticism. Dr. J. Kristiadi of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) opined that the team’s establishment indicated an "uncontrolled situation of [Indonesia’s] bureaucracy".

Elsewhere, Dr Iwan Gunawan, an expert staff of the Regional Representatives Council (DPD), argued that the reforms should be implemented by the executive led by the President. "Members of the cabinet alone cannot (conduct reforms). How can this be done by a pseudo cabinet comprising three people? It will create worry and resistance from the ministers who deal with bureaucratic management," he said.

A clear example of Indonesia’s current governance woe and ‘complex problem’ is tackling the forest fires/haze pollution problem. After temporary relief from the rain, the fires are raging again the in forests of East Kalimantan province, generating thick clouds of smoke and forcing airport closures once again.

According to meteorology experts from the International Pacific Research Centre (IPRC) in Hawaii, next year’s haze could be worst, and matching or venturing beyond the scale of the 1997/1998 disaster with a record high of 226 on the Pollutants Standards Index. The primary cause, apart from human activity, is a possible return of the super El Nino weather effect, which can spark long droughts and subsequent forest fires as farmers often seize the opportunity to engage in slash-and-burn practices.

Indonesia’s current response ranges from leasing fire-fighting planes from Russia, implementing an early warning system, to offering farmers incentives – in the form of free seeds – to give up the traditional slash-and-burn method to clear land. Masnellyarti Hilman, Indonesian Deputy Environment Minister, has announced plans to gradually introduce zero-burning in all provinces over two to three years.

Yet, such measures appear to skirt the main issues at hand. While land-clearing by fire has been outlawed, weak enforcement continues to confound the problem. Combating fires on peatland also suffers from an experience gap. According to Dr Raman Letchumanan, head of the Asean Secretariat's environment and disaster management unit, the authorities have no relevant case solutions to refer to, since natural conditions contributing to the haze are rarely found in other parts of the world.

A bigger issue exists in the current haze debate which has been under-publicised by the media. The controversial links between transboundary haze pollution,Indonesia’s (as well as the region’s) bio-fuel drive and climate change can be seen as a real ‘complex problem’ for Indonesia.

Since 1980, Indonesia has been the world’s largest plywood exporter, while its paper and pulp industry has doubled its production capacity in just one decade. Land is also being increasingly cleared for oil palm plantations, which provides the main support for the country’s blossoming biofuel industry.

The country has since this year announced with great fanfare its new focus of biofuel. The Minister of Energy unveiled on July 13 the country's intention to raise and invest 200 trillion rupiah (S$35 billion) over the next five years for biofuel production and distribution. More recently on September 26, the government is setting aside a fund of US$1.4 billion (S$2.2 billion) and nearly 500,000ha of land for biofuel development. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, three-quarters of the biofuel production funds for the next five years, or 51 trillion rupiah, will be used for palm oil production. The similar situation can be seen in Malaysia, as the world’s largest oil palm producer, having introduced guidelines to its biodiesel policy last August, and which caught the eye of many foreign investors, including the Indonesian government.

Based on such intentions, a case can be made that the government’s support for oil palm production for biofuel is aggravating the haze pollution problem, with oil palm plantation companies engaging in persistent land clearings through burning to cash in quickly on the profits. Additionally, with the depletion of the country’s natural forests through logging by the timber, paper and pulp industries, the slash-and-burn practices have shifted rapidly to peat lands (which constitute about 20-25 million hectares of the country and 60 per cent of the world's peat lands), and resulting in the primary cause (an estimated 60-80 per cent) of the haze.

The last piece of the controversy puzzle comes from Indonesia’s climate change policy drive, in part to earn international credibility and subsequent funding support from multilateral donors, and another to reap economic benefits from the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) initiative. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed nations must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels in the period between 2008 and 2012.

Apart from providing hundreds of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) recycling machines to businesses to end the use of CFCs in Indonesia, the government has also approved eight CDMs, which are designed to achieve up to 1.5 million tons of carbon reduction per year, and where a one-ton reduction in carbon dioxide is worth between US$7 and $8 when traded to industrial countries mainly from the West.

The State Ministry of Environment revealed that Indonesia had the potential to supply two percent of the global CDM market, or the equivalent of 125 million tons of carbon dioxide, largely through its energy and industrial sector which provided up to 60 percent of total emissions in the country. The further boost – bearing the intended goal of supporting global efforts to tackle climate change – comes from the government’s active policy drive to promote alternative fuels, including biofuels.

Yet, as earlier discussed, the government’s biofuel drive has indirectly aggravated the haze pollution problem. Peat fires are estimated to contain 100 billion tons of carbon, that can burn for at least the next 500 years. Once peat fires are ignited, they are difficult to manage, hard to put out, can burn for extended periods of time (3-6 months), and are high in pollutant content. Scientists estimate the figures for Southeast Asian peat emission to average about 1.5 billion tons per year, which translates into about 100 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year – a considerable figure, given that Southeast Asia accounts for 15% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions.

Hence, Indonesia’s efforts to combat the forest fires/haze pollution and to ‘support’ global efforts to tackle climate change may prove to be futile, unless the controversial links between the haze pollution, bio-fuel drive and climate change can be addressed adequately. Otherwise, Indonesia’s problems can become even more complex. 


Alternative energy: Beware hidden costs (The Straits Times, 22 July 2006)

Jakarta to pump $2.2b into biofuel industry (The Jakarta Post, 27 September 2006)

Haze next year may be worse than 1997's (The Straits Times, 30 October 2006)

CFC recycling to help ozone recover (The Jakarta Post, 31 October 2006)

Russian planes to help Indonesia fight haze (Reuters/The Straits Times, 31 October 2006)

Yudhoyono admits he faces complex problems (The Jakarta Post, 31 October 2006)

Haze covers nearly all territory of East Kalimantan again (Antara, 1 November 2006)

Indonesia working to fight annual forest fires (Channel News Asia, 1 November 2006)

RI hopes to gain from cleaner air (The Jakarta Post, 1 November 2006)

Jakarta 'needs political will to tackle haze' (The Straits Times, 2 November 2006)

Indonesia can tap external resources by ratifying pact (The Straits Times, 2 November 2006)