When President Obama welcomes President Joko Widodo of Indonesia on his first White House visit next week, he will have a valuable opportunity to help curb one of the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions.
Indonesia’s widespread conversion of peatlands and forests for logging and agricultural use has made the country one of the world’s biggest carbon polluters. Halting deforestation and preserving these natural areas, even partially, could decrease carbon dioxide emissions half a gigaton annually by 2030 — roughly the same reduction levels Mr. Obama has sought in the United States in updated fuel efficiency standards and power-plant regulations.
Washington has already incorporated climate issues into its dealings with Indonesia. It is the second largest donor to the Clean Technology Fund, a global trust that in 2010 earmarked $400 million for renewable energy in Indonesia. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. government foreign aid agency, is soon expected to announce the allocation of millions of dollars to help Indonesia curb methane emissions. Important as these programs are, they are no substitute for progress on deforestation, which accounts for at least 60 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions.
Mr. Obama should use the state visit to help Indonesia commit to curbing deforestation. There are reasons to believe that U.S. engagement now would be unusually effective.
For months, forest fires have been burning out of control across Indonesia, exacerbated by particularly dry El Niño conditions. The vast majority of these fires, which have been especially severe in Sumatra and Kalimantan, are set illegally by farmers and plantation companies to clear land. The consequences are disastrous: In 1997, the last major El Niño year, fires in Indonesia released roughly 13 to 40 percent of all global fossil fuel emissions that year and caused thousands of deaths.
Conditions are no better today. The World Resources Institute has reported that, since September, the daily emissions generated by Indonesia’s forest fires exceed the average daily emissions from all economic activity in the United States. As of this month, over 200,000 Indonesians in seven provinces have suffered respiratory illness; at least six people have died. President Widodo now faces growing domestic pressure to stop the fires and the illegal deforestation causing them.
Mr. Widodo has deployed over 25,000 personnel to control the fires and instructed the government to prosecute those who set them. But he understands that this is not enough. Mr. Obama should build on this momentum and help him implement measures now being discussed in Indonesia: a moratorium on all conversion of peatlands; re-wetting of degraded peatlands; a robust plan to monitor illegal land clearing; and a pledge to condition provinces’ access to funding on low deforestation rates. These strategies have worked in Brazil. If Mr. Widodo were to commit to these measures as part of a joint announcement with Mr. Obama that included a U.S. pledge of aid, he would have the political capital to follow through.
There is significant private sector interest in reducing deforestation. Industry leaders have grown fearful that ties to deforestation will trigger an international backlash. Since September 2014, five of the country’s largest palm oil producers — representing the vast majority of Indonesia’s palm oil market — have agreed to purge illegally forested palm oil from their supply chains, but they say that this will be difficult without better government policies. Absent such policies, the country’s most significant industry could suffer major financial losses — or, more likely, its leaders will abandon their environmental commitments.
Private foundations in America and Europe have also offered funding and technical assistance to help Indonesia’s small farmers increase productivity without resorting to illegal land clearing. Foreign governments have pledged support as well. Norway in 2010 dedicated a $1 billion pay-for-performance fund to combat deforestation, but much of it remains unspent for lack of progress.
Next week, Mr. Obama could offer to help Indonesia move forward and unlock Norway’s existing commitment, releasing funds for enforcement and monitoring efforts, and for supporting Indonesia’s millions of small-farm holders. America could also offer fire-fighting aid.
Reducing deforestation could significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions and decrease the risk of devastating fires like those raging today. For many Indonesians and people around the world, this would also be a victory on a personal level. As Mr. Obama told Rolling Stone last month, he hopes his daughters can one day enjoy “some of the same experiences” he had in Indonesia as a child, “walking through a forest and suddenly seeing an ancient temple. … I don’t want that gone.”
Brent Harris is a partner at Redstone Strategy Group, a social-sector consulting firm. Jennifer M. Harris and Michael Levi are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.