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Indonesia and its south-eastern neighbours are on the forefront of the battle to control the climate, United States Secretary of State John Kerry stressed last week. Speaking to students, civic leaders and government officials in Jakarta, he singled out Indonesia as being under severe threat from rising sea levels and changing weather patterns:

“This city, this country, this region, is really on the front lines of climate change, It’s not an exaggeration to say that your entire way of life here is at risk … In a sense, climate change can now be considered the world’s largest weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even, the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

He asked the population to push the government to address pollution and safeguard the environment. So how much are they doing?

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state, with over 17,000 islands, and is home to over 200 million people, which makes it the fourth most populous country in the world. According to the World Bank, per capita emissions in Indonesia are relatively low, at 1.8 metric tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2010, down slightly from 1.9 in 2009. By way of comparison, Australians produce 16.9 metric tonnes of CO2 per capita; the US is producing 17.6.

But because of its large population, Indonesia’s overall emissions are quite high, at about 433,989 kilotons per year. This makes it the world’s 14th-biggest polluter. Australia is ranked 17th.

The Indonesian Ministry of Environment has committed to decreasing the “rate of environmental damage including water resources, forests and land, biodiversity, energy, atmosphere, ocean and coastal ecosystems”. But actual details and tangible outcomes seem thin on the ground.

In 2010, the World Bank approved a $200 million loan to Indonesia for addressing climate change, but the Climate Change Development Policy Loan has been only moderately successful so far, according to a World Bank report dated June 2013.

The country has huge geothermal potential, having the world’s largest reserve, but less than 4% of it has been developed. In 2011 the World Bank approved another project to expand this cleaner way to produce energy as alternative to coal.

Indonesia does have one natural advantage for containing greenhouse gases: its vast peat lands, or low-lying rainforests. These forests can hold 57 billion tonnes of carbon, according to a study conducted by Erik Olbrei from Australian National University. By comparison, the Amazonian rainforest holds about 86 billion tonnes.

But these “green lungs” are disappearing at a vast rate,mostly destroyed by fires or converted to farmland.

In August last year, the president of Indonesia’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, Dr Rachmat Witoelar, launched the National Climate Change Learning Strategy. There are many projects in progress, but it’s hard to find substantial achievements. The country’s environmental legislation is extensive and detailed but lacks common vision and established policies.

Without implementation and enforcement, Indonesia’s climate policies could be all hot air.

Peter Fray

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