Isabel Esterman – Home to the world's third-largest expanse of tropical forest, the world's fourth-biggest population, and frequently ranked among the world's top 10 greenhouse gas emitters, Indonesia is a country where what happens has a vast effect on global biodiversity and environmental health.
Here, assembled by Mongabay staff, are some of the top news and trends from Indonesia in 2022.
Deforestation continues to slow
Between 2001 and 2021, Indonesia lost more than 28 million hectares (69 million acres) of forest, an area larger than New Zealand, according to Global Forest Watch. However, since peaking in 2016, forest loss in Indonesia has continued to decline. According to GFW, the country lost 841,000 hectares (2.08 million acres) of tree cover in 2021, including 203,000 hectares (502,000 acres) of primary forest, both the lowest levels recorded since 2003.
Deforestation linked to oil palm expansion, for years a primary driver of forest loss, has also shown a marked decline. An analysis by palm oil supply chain mapping initiative Trase found that deforestation in Indonesia associated with palm oil dropped by 82% in the past decade. The trend also appears to hold across the region, with palm oil-linked deforestation across Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea dropping for the second year in a row in 2021, according to a study by sustainability risk analysis organization Chain Reaction Research. The declines, which occurred even as palm oil prices rebounded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been described as "huge huge news" and a signal that sustainability pledges are having a real impact on deforestation.
While the numbers have generally been met with optimism, activists note that there is still cause for concern. "Indonesia's forests are not yet out of danger: 2.4 million hectares [5.9 million acres] of intact forest remain in existing palm oil concessions," Timer Manurung, director of Indonesian environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara, told Mongabay. "Legally speaking, companies could clear [these] forests. Right now, there's no legal protection." Forests in Indonesian Borneo and Papua are particularly in danger, Timer said.
This echoes broader concerns about deforestation in the country: a 2021 report by a coalition of Indonesia NGOs found that while Indonesia's overall annual deforestation rate fell, forest loss in the regions with the most remaining forest, concentrated in the country's eastern islands like Papua, actually increased. Environment activists also point to recent government policies as potential threats to forests, including a push to expand large-scale food estates, plans to build a new capital city in Borneo, major infrastructure projects, and a program to promote palm oil-based biofuel.
EU deforestation law prompts a regulatory upgrade
In December, the European Union finalized a law banning the trade of timber and other forest products associated with deforestation and forest degradation, even if the products are sourced and exported legally. Once the law is fully enacted, companies will be required to issue due diligence statements verifying that any goods they import into the EU are deforestation- and forest degradation-free. Conservation groups like Greenpeace and WWF have lauded the law as "groundbreaking" and a "major breakthrough for forests."
Indonesian officials, however, have slammed the law, saying it negates more than a decade of progress by the country in complying with existing EU sustainability codes. Since 2011, Indonesia has worked with the EU to develop a system, known as the SVLK, to verify the legality of its exported timber. The SVLK is supposed to favor Indonesian timber products, granting them a "green lane" that exempts them from stringent checks on arrival. The new law, officials and industry insiders say, shifts the goalposts after the arduous process of bringing exporters into compliance with SVLK requirements.
However, plans are already in the works to upgrade the SVLK to add sustainability components, such as geolocation of timber batches. Whether this will be enough to keep Indonesia's green lane into the EU open remains to be seen. Even if the new SVLK strengthens sustainability aspects of Indonesia's timber trade, it still doesn't require timber or timber products to be sourced from non-deforested areas, according to Mardi Minangsari, the head of Indonesian NGO Kaoem Telapak. Therefore, she says, exports from Indonesia are unlikely to automatically be ruled deforestation-free.
Indonesia-Norway carbon deal revived
In September 2022, a year after Indonesia unilaterally terminated a similar scheme, Indonesia and Norway inked a deal that will see the Nordic country pay Indonesia to keep its forests standing. Under the agreement, measurable progress by Indonesia on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation will be eligible for payment. The deal falls in line with Indonesia's ambitious bid to transform its forests into a major carbon sink by 2030, absorbing 140 million metric tons more CO2 than they emit into the atmosphere.
While Indonesia has in the past been a major carbon emitter due to land-use change, deforestation, forest fires and peatland destruction, the recent decline in deforestation is seen as a positive sign. "Indonesia under the leadership of [President] Jokowi [Joko Widodo] has made great strides and I have to happily announce that we see Indonesia as a world leader on global issues that we're discussing today," Norway's minister of climate and environment said during the launch of the new agreement.
The previous deal, signed in 2010, was terminated by Indonesia in 2021, citing lack of progress on promised payments. This time around, the deal will be based on "mutual respect and mutual understanding," including a mutually agreed-upon measurement, reporting and verification protocol, says Dida Migfar Ridha, the head of foreign partnerships at Indonesia's environment ministry. Under the new deal, outstanding payments from the previous incarnation will also be honored.
In related news, in November 2022, Indonesia received a $20.9 million advance payment as part of an emissions reduction payment agreement between Indonesia and the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in the Bornean province of East Kalimantan. Under the agreement, Indonesia stands to receive a total $110 million for verified emissions reductions.
$20 billion to curb coal use
In November, Indonesia reached a deal with the G7 group of countries on a $20 billion financing package to help the country cap emissions from energy generation by 2030 and accelerate its transition to renewable energy. The deal, described by John Morton, counselor to the U.S. treasury secretary, as "arguably the single largest country-specific climate investment partnership ever," will see the G7 countries, plus Norway and Denmark, disburse the funds over three to five years. Money will go to developing renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, and to phasing out coal plants, which currently generate the majority of the country's energy.
In total, the program is expected to prevent more than 300 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions through 2030, and more than 2 billion metric tons through 2060 from the current business-as-usual projection.
Fears remain, however, as to how much of the funding will be in the form of loans rather than grants, and the specifics of how the money will be spent; a detailed investment plan is still in the works. In addition, activists have pointed out that, despite the deal, Indonesia is still building new coal plants. The country's 2020-2030 energy plan includes coal plants with a combined 13 gigawatts of capacity that have already been tendered out. Captive coal plants, which supply a particular industry rather than feeding into the grid, are a particularly thorny issue. A law passed in 2022 greenlights their construction, and the Indonesian government's insistence on moving forward with captive coal plants reportedly nearly derailed the agreement. Ultimately, the joint statement outlining the agreement only commits Indonesia to restricting the development of captive coal plants in line with the 2022 regulations, and to using renewable energy wherever it's affordable, reliable, accessible, and timely to do so.
New criminal code, moves to silence critics
While earning plaudits abroad for its efforts to reduce emissions and deforestation, Indonesia's government took steps at home that have alarmed both activists and conservationists, many of whom fear recent moves will roll back environmental protections and muzzle criticisms of government policy.
In December, the country passed into law a sweeping revision of its Criminal Code, a holdover from the Dutch colonial era. Experts have long expressed alarm that amendments to the code, now set to be fully enacted in 2025, would weaken enforcement against environmental crimes. In particular, environmental experts say new amendments to the code will increase the burden of proof for environmental crimes, make it more difficult for corporations to be prosecuted for harming the environment, and eliminate minimum sanctions for violating environmental law.
Activists also fear another controversial article, which criminalizes insulting the sitting president, could be used against environment defenders who criticize public works projects or other presidential initiatives.
Indonesia's environment ministry has also publicly clashed with scientists who raised questions about orangutan population numbers. In the past five years, the ministry has repeatedly asserted that Indonesia's orangutans are making a comeback after decades of population declines that led all orangutan species to be declared critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. In September 2022, five leading foreign orangutan researchers published an op-ed in The Jakarta Post, challenging the government's claims that orangutan populations are growing, and calling on the ministry to share the data on which it bases its assessment. Shortly thereafter, all five of the scientists who signed the op-ed were banned by the ministry from conducting research in connection with the country's national parks and conservation agencies. Herlambang Wiratraman, a constitutional law professor and advisory board member of the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom, told Mongabay the backlash was emblematic of a larger trend of suppressing academic freedom in Indonesia, particularly in the environmental field. Other recent incidents include the 2020 severing of a 25-year agreement with WWF after the environment ministry accused the conservation organization of overstepping its authority; and the deportation of French landscape ecologist David Gaveau after he produced an estimate of damages from 2019 forest fires that greatly exceeded the ministry's figure. Critics of the Batang Toru dam, being built in the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, have also faced blowback and threats.
Nickel booms, so does pollution
As the global market for electric vehicles surges, so too does demand for nickel, a critical component in EV batteries. As the world's top nickel producer, Indonesia is well-placed to capitalize on this demand, and government is moving aggressively to increase mining and refining. Under President Joko Widodo, exports of raw nickel have been halted in hopes of building up a homegrown EV battery industry, part of a grand ambition to eventually make Indonesia a global EV production hub.
The development of this "green industry" has often come at a heavy price for people living in nickel-rich parts of the archipelago. Fishers in eastern Indonesia's "spice islands" blame the burgeoning nickel industry there for degrading the environment and decimating local fisheries. One company operating there, PT Trimegah Bangun Persada, was in 2019 granted a permit to dump 6 million metric tons of waste into the ocean each year. On the island of Sulawesi, people in villages near nickel smelters live with homes and crops covered in dust, and say their wells are drying up.
Some experts warn that failing to clean up the industry could also cost the country as a whole, noting that EV companies, which tend to cater to environmentally conscious consumers, are paying increasing attention to the sustainability of their supply chains.