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Thinking Long Term for Growth Means Protecting Forests

This article was published by The Jakarta Post on May 29, 2020.

One of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s priorities for his second term in office is still on boosting investment in infrastructure across the archipelago: more toll roads, seaports, and airports to support expansion of industry and economic growth.

Investing wisely is now an even greater imperative in light of the fiscal demands of the COVID-19 crisis. Thinking long term in the context of growing economy and improving livelihood in a changing climate means building forests into those plans.

A new working paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI) analyzes the implications for Indonesia of designing a long-term climate strategy that lasts beyond the usual 5 to 10-year timeframe.

Shifting the planning horizon to mid-century — as the Paris Agreement on climate change has encouraged countries to do — changes the type of investment and infrastructure development that Indonesia should be envisioning now.

Specifically, investment in physical infrastructure must be complemented by strategies to maintain and protect Indonesia’s natural infrastructure, especially forests. Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest expanse of tropical forests. Those forests provide a substantial flow of environmental goods and services that directly support the livelihoods of tens of millions of people, including Indonesia’s poorest communities. Such benefits unfortunately are often invisible and are not appreciated until they are lost as forests are converted to other land uses.

Integrating Indonesia’s natural infrastructure into a long-term investment strategy would have at least three benefits.

First, setting a long-term framework for land-use management and governance would protect Indonesia’s economy and society from future losses.

President Jokowi’s announced intention to relocate the nation’s capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan provides a prime example of high costs imposed by a failure to invest in maintaining natural infrastructure. Coastal mangrove forests, intact upland watersheds, and more green space within cities helps control the kind of flooding that’s making Jakartans miserable and prompting the proposed move.

Meanwhile, last year Indonesia experienced another episode of forest fires and haze, the worst since 2015. While investment in firefighting infrastructure is necessary, thinking long term requires a shift from fire suppression to fire prevention, including fiscal incentives for reforestation and restoration of Indonesia’s degraded peatlands.

Fire prevention over the long term would also require a broader rethink of investment strategies in the land sector, as well as in other sectors that risk accelerating forest loss and degradation. For example, the economic benefits of Indonesia’s palm oil production — which averaged 11 percent annually in the decade starting in 2004 — are reduced once the ecological impacts of oil palm expansion, such as hotter, drier weather, increased risk of fires, and subsidence in peatland areas are taken into account.

In addition, the design of physical infrastructure should minimize its direct and indirect impact on forests. For example, building roads through intact forests can facilitate illegal logging and cause fragmentation that increases vulnerability to fire. Failure to connect the dots across sectors can lead to costly mistakes.

Second, by maintaining and restoring land-use ecosystems right now, Indonesia could build resilience to tomorrow’s climate.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk 2019 Report listed extreme weather events, major natural disasters and failure to address the climate crisis as the top three gravest threats facing the world. In Indonesia, climate change is expected to result in more intense and frequent extreme weather events such as torrential rains and storm surges along with slow-onset sea-level rise and chronic drought.

In the past decade, the frequency and ferocity of flooding in Indonesia have already increased because of climate change, affecting communities in coastal cities, delta regions, and small islands.

In addition to providing ecosystem services such as clean water for drinking, sanitation, irrigation for agriculture, and hydroelectric power generation, forests are also key in disaster prevention. Forested watersheds attenuate floods and landslides, mangrove forests buffer life and property from coastal storms, and inland forests mitigate temperature and rainfall extremes and their impacts on agriculture and health. Further, keeping forests intact means reducing the chances for transmission of zoonotic, or animal-to-human, diseases such as COVID-19, according to a recent study by Stanford University.

Third, by investing in low-cost, land-based emission reductions now, Indonesia could avoid higher-cost, more technology-intensive mitigation options in the future.

In October 2017, Indonesia announced its plan to shift towards low carbon development which is reflected in Indonesia’s mid-term development plan 2020-2024. But to transition to a low carbon economy, Indonesia will have to implement more ambitious climate change mitigation measures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land singled out protection of irreplaceable carbon-dense forests, peatlands, and mangroves as among the highest priorities for emissions mitigation.

Indonesia should see its forests as key assets in attracting international climate finance, in addition to offsetting its own residual emissions. Recently, Indonesia qualified for the first results-based payment under its agreement with Norway, amounting to US$56 million or more than Rp 840 billion, as part of a global effort to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus the sustainable management of forests, and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+). This Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation is a framework negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a way for industrialized countries to reward developing countries for reducing forest-based emissions and enhancing removals.

Further, as evidenced by Indonesia’s trade dispute with the European Union over eligibility of palm oil-based biodiesel to qualify as a renewable fuel, global markets are becoming more sensitive to getting deforestation out of commodity supply chains. Positioning Indonesia as a preferred supplier to these markets would be an additional benefit from long-term planning to conserve its natural infrastructure.

Indonesia’s forests are critical to the food security, agricultural production, health, safety, and livelihoods of its citizens.

When we think about investment in infrastructure, we should not just focus on short-term economic growth, but investment to achieve sustainable and equitable long-term growth for the next generation and beyond.


Frances Seymour is distinguished senior fellow at World Resources Institute (WRI), Nirarta Samadhi is director of WRI Indonesia and Hanny Chrysolite is a former analyst of WRI Indonesia.

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