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Turnbull and Jokowi: A chance to stop the fires

Turnbull and Jokowi: A chance to stop the fires
Published 12 Nov 2015 

This week, Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and Indonesian President Joko Widodo (known locally as 'Jokowi') will meet for the first time. The meeting comes at an interesting time for the two countries, both sides seeming to acknowledge that the partnership is punching well below its potential. As two of the region's most populous democracies, each navigating similarly complicated ties with China, there are plenty of structural reasons for optimism. Likewise, Turnbull and Jokowi, both relatively new and still proving themselves domestically, have much in common and much to gain from early diplomatic wins.

Yet, when it comes to diagnosing the reasons for a lacklustre relationship, or what might be done about it, there is considerably less consensus; answers seem to range from 'pay more attention' to 'expect less'.

Another approach – plucked from the files of 'never waste a good crisis' – would be for both leaders to prioritise what has become not just the top domestic issue in Indonesia at the moment, but indeed a leading regional issue, and do so in ways that could well yield a diplomatic victory of global proportions. In three words: Stop the fires.

As I wrote with colleagues last month, massive forest fires sparked by illegal land clearing are now burning out of control in Indonesia due to dry El Nino conditions, creating a public health crisis. The fires' main fuel source is carbon-intensive peat and forest lands.

Similar fires during the last similar El Nino year (1997-98) unleashed 3-9 gigatons of carbon dioxide – roughly 15-40% of global fossil fuel emissions that year – and caused tens of thousands of premature deaths. Today, with more than 500,000 Indonesians seeking medical treatment for acute respiratory illness, Jokowi faces growing domestic pressure to stop the fires and the illegal deforestation causing them.

In climate terms, these fires mark the worst man-made environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. As a result of its deforestation, Indonesia ranks as the world's sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and this year's fires are likely to place the country into the top five, behind China, the US, the EU, and India. Last month, carbon emissions from Indonesia's peat and forest fires frequently surpassed the daily emissions of the entire US economy. [fold]

Indonesia needs a two-part fix: a solution that would both end the fires in the immediate term, and enable longer-term, structural progress on its broader deforestation problem. The good news is that timing for such a deal could hardly be more auspicious. Rarely, in fact, does a crisis so dire have so much going for it: domestic political will; at least $1 billion in international assistance; significant private sector support; and technical know-how; it's all there for the taking. 

President Jokowi has committed to a moratorium of all land concessions. And pending a government review of existing licenses, license holders will be prohibited from disturbing any peatlands that have not yet been drained and planted. Translation: palm oil companies with significant holdings of undisturbed peatlands will be unable to convert them to agriculture, saving an estimated seven million acres. Equally important, Jokowi also instructed his minster of environment and forests to initiate a program to re-wet peatlands that have been drained. 

There is also significant interest from the private sector and ready financing from other countries to help. Six of the largest palm oil producers – comprising roughly 80% of the Indonesian market – recently pledged to purge illegally forested palm oil from their supply chains. Norway has dedicated a $1 billion pay-for-performance fund to combatting deforestation in Indonesia, much of which remains unspent for lack of progress.

Not least, there are real-world models that show how all of this can fit together. A decade ago, Brazil had deforestation rates comparable to Indonesia. Through a mix of heightened law enforcement and government policies designed to incentivise restoration of degraded lands, Brazil has decreased deforestation by over 70%, unlocking its own $1 billion in international assistance (also from Norway) in the process. 

But these happy forces will not linger indefinitely. Blue skies will return eventually, as El Nino recedes. And the growing global spotlight on climate will soon reach its peak, as leaders convene in Paris for next month's UN climate talks. 

This is where Australia comes in. Looking to the upcoming UN climate negotiations, Mr. Turnbull could offer to help Indonesia devise a plan that Mr. Jokowi could unveil at Paris next month. The plan could build on President Jokowi's existing commitments and unlock some portion of Norway's $1 billion in pledged assistance,  thus releasing funds that would be used for enforcement and monitoring efforts, and for supporting Indonesia's millions of small-farm holders. 

In diplomacy, as in life, it seems there is no surer route to fortifying a friendship than helping a friend in need. The only difference here is that, for Turnbull and Jokowi, the payoff could well be global in its proportions.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user CIFOR.

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