As Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with President Obama on Monday at the White House, peat fires half a world away continued to send plumes of smoke across Southeast Asia.
The two presidents touched on the fire issue, but only announced agreements on maritime and defense cooperation, energy issues, and alternative fuels for airlines and renewable energy. In other words, climate was not a focal point of the meeting between two of the world’s largest carbon emitters, even though previous White House meetings this year with leaders from Brazil, China, India, and the Catholic Church all focused on climate change.
Indonesia’s fires — an annual, illegal occurrence that is worse this year than usual — are a two-pronged carbon bomb: Destroying peat and forest land, while sending millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the air (along with carcinogenic particulate matter). The current fires are mostly driven by farmers who are clearing land (illegally) for palm oil production. The fires are emitting more tons of carbon per day than the average emissions of the United States economy.
But climate change in Indonesia can be a sensitive issue. Nationalism is often blamed for isolating Indonesia — even foreign aid can be seen as interference. Widodo initially rejected help from other Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, who are bearing the brunt of the plumes.
Obama reportedly discussed the fires in the context of climate change the Paris climate talks. “One of the main issues we discussed was the issue of climate change, and why it’s so important in large countries like ours work together to arrive at the strongest possible set of targets in international agreements when we arrive in Paris just a little over a month from now,” he said.
Indonesia’s intended nationally developed contribution (INDC) to the United Nations depends largely on assistance from more developed nations. The energy agreement announced Monday by the White House includes more than $350 million in energy investments. USAID has already leveraged $18 million in technical assistance towards $269 million of financing for commercial-scale clean energy projects, the White House said.
While boasting a robust and growing economy, Indonesia is still a relatively poor country. Only 4 percent of Indonesians live without electricity, but consumption of electricity was only 730 kWh per person in 2012, according to the most recent data from the World Bank. In the United States, it was 12,954 kWh/person that year. Likewise, energy use in consumption of oil or its equivalent was eight times less in Indonesia than in the United States. Indonesia is one of the few countries that emits more carbon through land use than through fossil fuel combustion. It is also the highest emitter per capita of the top 10 carbon emitters, according to the World Resources Institute.
“The popular notion has been that [Widodo] doesn’t talk much about climate change, and that is true, because he doesn’t use the term climate change very often. But he is very diligent, very positive on issues that are at the heart of the climate change issue,” said Wimar Witoelar, an Indonesian media figure and adjunct professor at Deakin University in Australia.
The Indonesian president recently announced that he would freeze new permits for peat palm oil agriculture on peat lands. He also cut his U.S. trip short due to the fires.
One of the issues the two presidents did talk about, though, is the Transpacific Partnership, which he said his country would join. And while there are numerous environmental and climate concerns raised by the massive trade agreement, getting Indonesia on board might actually be good for the planet.
According to the White House, the environmental chapter of the TPP includes forest protections. Reducing Indonesia’s ability to sell palm oil from deforested land could put economic pressure on the same producers who are responsible for the fires.
“I think [production] can drop, by sustainable practice, to a sustainable level,” Witoelar said. “We won’t have glorious palm oil exports anymore, but they will be good ones, supported by small holders.”
If economic pressures don’t work, there is always the legal route. Singapore has already sued several Indonesian companies for the fires — which have led to schools being closed and could be associated with serious health effects.
“Who burns the fires, which companies, which individuals?” Witoelar said. “Crime has no borders, and punishment should have no borders.”