Published: 20:53, November 24, 2021 | Updated: 20:52, November 24, 2021
Indonesia's capital relocation heads toward green transition
By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong and Leonardus Jegho in Jakarta

This aerial picture shows some of the city's downtown bypass roads designed to help relieve traffic congestion during the rush hour in Jakarta on Oct 26, 2021. (BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

Indonesia's climate commitments must now be taken into account as the country moves forward with its plan to transfer its capital from Jakarta to the island of Borneo, environmental experts say.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Nov 4 that the relocation project would cost $35 billion. The House of Representatives is also expected to pass a law later this year to allocate a budget for the planned relocation in the first half of 2024. The new capital will be built across 56,000 hectares of land in East Kalimantan province.

More than the massive cost the planned move will incur, experts are concerned about how this will affect Indonesia's commitment to the Paris climate treaty

More than the massive cost the planned move will incur, experts are concerned about how this will affect Indonesia's commitment to the Paris climate treaty. The Southeast Asian country – one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters – has pledged to reduce emissions by signing an agreement to end deforestation by 2030 during the United Nations Climate Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow.

Establishing the new capital might disturb the lush rainforest that has sheltered the endangered Bornean orangutan and indigenous Dayak communities for years.

Yanuar Nugroho, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that environmental concerns were behind Widodo's plan to move the capital. Nugroho was alluding to Jakarta's worsening air pollution, frequent flooding and traffic jams.

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Jakarta is the world's fastest-sinking city, with some estimates suggesting one-third of its landmass could be submerged by 2050.

Nugroho, who once served as Widodo's deputy chief of staff, said relocating the capital to East Kalimantan – to no less than a forested area of the province – is bound to have an environmental impact. He said that if the Indonesian government wants to fulfill its climate commitment, any deforestation incurred must be compensated with the replanting of trees in other locations that can serve as a carbon sink.

"The bigger problem related to climate change in reality is not deforestation" which can, in theory, be compensated for with reforestation in other locations, he said, but the emissions from the new capital after it comes into operation. 

Nugroho said this should be considered since such emissions will have a big impact on climate change.

Hendricus Andy Simarmata, president of the Indonesian Association of Urban and Regional Planners, said moving the capital will certainly require clearing of some forest land to give way to urban development. But this, he said, would be a great opportunity for the Indonesian government to demonstrate that it is capable of building a climate-proof city.

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"The central government has shown their willingness and commitment to apply a green and sustainable development principle for the new capital planning," Simarmata said. "Of course, as a professional association in urban and regional planning, we will keep giving inputs for this preparation."

He said the government will need two years to build this new city – from constructing new buildings to developing potable water systems and paving new roads – and stressed the importance of maintaining the capital as a "green city".

Widodo first announced the move to relocate the capital in his August 2019 speech to the parliament. The president said the country's capital city "is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation".

Apart from environmental reasons, Widodo said that moving the capital from Jakarta will distribute the gains of economic development equally to over 270 million Indonesians residing all across the archipelago.

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Jakarta is located in Java, Indonesia's fourth-biggest island and home to more than half of the nation's population. East Kalimantan in Borneo – an island the country shares with Malaysia and Brunei – in contrast has less than 6 percent of the population.

The government is also planning to relocate at least 182,000 civil servants from Jakarta to Kalimantan. This number excludes military and police members.

Soon after Widodo made the announcement, several environmental organizations conducted a joint study to determine the impact of the planned transfer. In December 2019, they urged the government to cancel this plan.