Aeshnina Azzahra Aqilani is too young to vote in Indonesia's elections this month but that hasn't stopped her from demanding the three presidential candidates adopt greener policies to combat the climate crisis.

Over the last six months, the 16-year-old student collected almost 1,000 letters, both online and at schools and colleges, from young people across her home province of East Java.

The writers — 60% of whom will be first-time voters in the presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 14 — all demanded firmer action on climate change and recycling.

"They hope that environmental issues will be prioritized by our three presidential candidates," said Aqilani, who lives in Gresik regency and forwarded the letters to the candidates in late January.

But so far, there are few signs of that happening, say environmentalists, who have urged the candidates to commit to strong and detailed policies to fight climate change in a country rich in forests and peatlands while also one of the world's top 10 greenhouse gas emitters.

Environmentalists say that while the candidates have spoken during campaigning about the urgent risks posed by climate change — a new development from past elections — policies on addressing the climate crisis often lack detail and ambition.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, the former governor of Central Java province Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan are all vying to replace popular outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known also as Jokowi, after his decade in power.

Recent polls show Prabowo, whose running mate is Jokowi's son, strengthening his lead over his opponents.

But while all three have made pledges on the environment, there are fears these may be watered down — not least because analysts say political candidates in Indonesia often have or develop close ties with natural resource companies to help finance their ambitions, and that this can influence climate and economic policies.

Environmental activists during a rally in front of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta
Environmental activists during a rally in front of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta | REUTERS

"Indonesia's next leaders must take climate issues as part of their key policies," said Nirarta Samadhi, country director at nonprofit World Resources Institute Indonesia, noting that the majority of those voting on Feb. 14 will be young.

About 205 million of the more than 270 million people in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country are eligible to vote, with around a third of those under the age of 30 and 52% under 40, according to the General Elections Commission.

"(Young people) would be amongst those mostly impacted by climate change — now and in the future," Samadhi added.

Youth-led climate activism is thriving in Indonesia, and there is solid public awareness of the effects of the climate crisis and the need for politicians to act swiftly.

A survey published last year by the Center of Economic and Law Studies and the UniTrend research institute at Gadjah Mada University showed that 81% of Indonesians believe the government should declare a climate emergency, while 60% think the government has largely failed to act on the climate crisis.

But in the past, people have not tended to vote primarily on environmental issues, and green groups have been accused by politicians and businesses of hindering economic growth.

Aqilani, who was inspired to launch her campaign because of concern over polluted rivers and their health effects in her home area, hopes her letter campaign will help drive action.

"This is an effective way to encourage environmental improvements in the future," she said.

Calls for clarity

Indonesia is one of the world's 17 "megadiverse" countries, home to the third-largest tropical forests and also the biggest palm oil producer, a commodity blamed by many environmentalists for high deforestation rates.

Destroying rainforests is a major threat to climate action, as trees absorb about a third of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions produced worldwide, but release carbon back into the air when they rot or are burned.

Large areas of Indonesia's rainforests have been cleared for crops like palm oil or for industries like mining and pulp and paper, or for urbanization.

Former Jakarta Governor and presidential candidate Anies Baswedan delivers a speech in Pamekasan, East Java province, Indonesia, on Wednesday.
Former Jakarta Governor and presidential candidate Anies Baswedan delivers a speech in Pamekasan, East Java province, Indonesia, on Wednesday. | Antara Foto / via REUTERS

Deforestation rates have slowed in recent years because of stricter policies and forest fire controls but the country was still ranked fourth globally for primary tropical forest loss in 2022 by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Despite the critical importance of its rich biodiversity to Indonesia and the world, the three presidential candidates have focused their campaigns on promoting growth, jobs, welfare, anti-corruption and pluralism.

And while they have pledged to introduce or maintain green policies — such as incentivizing renewable energy investments, phasing out coal power plants, empowering forest conservation efforts, and potentially ending the state power utility's monopoly — analysts say more must be done.

Tiza Mafira, director at the Climate Policy Initiative independent think tank, said any new president must back current energy transition targets and ensure the phasing out of fossil fuels continues.

Indonesia has pledged to cut emissions by more than 30% by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. The target for the energy sector is to achieve net zero by 2050.

In late 2022, Jakarta took a major step towards reaching this goal by clinching one of the largest-ever climate finance deals to shutter its coal-fired power plants early and shift to renewable energy.

But this transition away from fossil fuels has yet to translate into firm action. While there is concern in resource-rich areas over jobs, its potential impacts are yet to be fully considered by most voters — many of whom are still reeling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"All three candidates have mentioned climate goals, which shows that climate change is not a polarizing issue," Mafira said. "The defining debates will be around which policies will succeed in reaching climate goals within the deadline — net zero by 2060 or 2050 — and therefore avoid the high cost of slow action," she added.

Mafira said a moratorium on new coal plant licences and transparency on the early retirement of coal plants should also be maintained, and she warned that fossil fuel and energy subsidies were slowing down the transition to renewables.

Deforestation on Indonesia's Sumatra island in 2010
Deforestation on Indonesia's Sumatra island in 2010 | REUTERS

As the transition accelerates, she said guidelines on ethical mining would be needed for minerals like nickel, used in renewables and green technologies such as electric vehicles.

"There needs to be a plan for how much mining is needed, for what and how long, and a transition into circular supply chains where minerals are not mined but recovered and recycled."

Risk of biodiversity loss

Green policies introduced by Jokowi should be continued, but a new leader should also make improvements and try different approaches, said Firdaus Cahyadi, Indonesia team lead at climate activist group

For example, the energy transition deal should be renegotiated to avoid much of it arriving as loans in favor of more balanced financing, he said.

The agreement should also boost transparency, switch focus away from large-scale renewable energy projects to community-based renewable energy, and remove any provisions that still allow the construction of coal-fired power plants, he added.

"Each candidate has incorporated the green economy into the documents outlining their vision and mission," Cahyadi said. "However, there is a possibility that all candidates may divert the green economy agenda to serve the interests of sustaining businesses in fossil energy and large-scale plantations, which could potentially contribute to increased deforestation."

Current policies for the protection and restoration of peatlands, as well as forests more broadly, must be backed any incoming president, said Iola Abas, coordinator at Indonesian green advocacy group Pantau Gambut.

During campaigning, the three presidential candidates have tended to narrow climate issues to energy concerns and shy away from reviewing laws that risk deforestation, Abas added. They have also not announced any new policies to tackle companies carrying out illegal deforestation, she said.

WRI's Samadhi said business-as-usual policies focusing on short-term economic gains were no longer sufficient.

"Focusing on short-term benefits comes at the cost of risking biodiversity loss and ecosystem balance that can only accelerate climatic instability and its associated costs," he said.