Coal, nickel, palm oil, rainforests.
The riches of Indonesia matter to the rest of the world. Therefore, so does its presidential election.
Early results on Wednesday in the world’s third-largest democracy signaled the victory of Prabowo Subianto, a former army general linked to human rights abuses, as the country’s next president. The new government’s approach on the management of its natural resources could have a significant effect on the world’s ability to keep global warming to relatively safe levels. Environmentalists are also watching what the vote might mean for their ability to operate freely in a country with a history of repression.
Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel and something that the world must quickly stop burning in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. But Indonesia also has huge reserves of nickel, which is critical to battery-making and the transition to cleaner energy.
Mr. Prabowom has said that he supports transitioning the country away from coal power, though gradually. He also supports a ban on exports of raw nickel, designed to encourage a homegrown battery-making industry, that has been in place for several years.
Those two initiatives clash.
Processing nickel requires vast amounts of energy. So, Indonesia has been on a binge of building new coal-burning power plants. That, in turn, has driven up Indonesia’s emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Mr. Prabowo has cast himself as a candidate who would largely continue the policies of the departing president, Joko Widodo, whose administration imposed the nickel export ban.
Indonesia’s global climate role is important in another way. The country has vast stretches of forest that are vital to the effort to slow global warming because they pull so much planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
However, Indonesia is also the largest exporter of palm oil, which is used in a range of everyday products from soap to ice cream, and the production of palm oil has led to severe deforestation in recent decades. While deforestation rates have slowed lately, Mr. Prabowo’s promises to produce more biofuels could quickly reverse those gains.
In short, what happens in Indonesia doesn’t stay in Indonesia.
It’s doubling down on coal
Indonesia is a huge exporter of coal, with China its main buyer. Coal is also critical to domestic energy: It supplies the single-largest share of Indonesia’s electricity.
Indonesia is part of a $20 billion global agreement, led by the United States, to retire some of Indonesia’s coal-burning power plants earlier than planned. That agreement, called the Just Energy Transition Partnership, hasn’t resulted in any specific plans to close coal plants yet.
In fact, despite the coal transition agreement, Indonesia’s coal fleet is expanding. Indonesia’s emissions of carbon dioxide soared by more than 20 percent in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent organization that rates country-level emissions targets. It assessed Indonesia’s climate targets to be “critically insufficient.”
Nickel makes it a new-energy powerhouse
Mr. Joko’s administration cast Indonesia as central to the global transition to electric vehicles. By banning the export of nickel ore, critical for electric-vehicle batteries, he pushed international companies to invest in processing nickel in the country.
China obliged. The Chinese company Tsingshan set up factories to process nickel ore so it could be turned into electric-vehicle batteries as well as other products like stainless steel. But that’s driving up coal power.
With Chinese support, Indonesia is building a fleet of new coal-burning power plants to supply its booming nickel processing facilities. Processed nickel is more lucrative than nickel ore, though it brings a host of social and environmental risks. A recent report by the nonprofit research and advocacy group Climate Rights International found that nickel mining and processing units had violated the rights of Indigenous communities and caused water and air pollution.
Mr. Prabowo, on the campaign trail, said he would continue the mineral export ban. S&P Global, a company that analyzes trends in commodities, said the ban would “likely remain largely unchanged.”
Biofuels raise deforestation worries
Indonesia is already the world’s largest exporter of palm oil. Mr. Prabowo has proposed to set up a separate palm oil ministry.
Mr. Prabowo campaigned to expand production of biofuels from crops including palm oil, cassava and sugar cane. Environmentalists worry that a push for biofuels could lead to deforestation, reversing the gains that Indonesia had made in protecting its rich forests.
Mr. Prabowo, the current defense minister, was removed from the army after he was linked to the kidnapping of political dissidents. His record on rights has raised concerns among climate activists. During the campaign, Mr. Prabowo dismissed such questions. He has never been charged in a court of law.
Should he be the final winner of Wednesday’s election, said Firdaus Cahyadi, a campaigner for 350.org, which supports action on global warming, “it will make it difficult for civil society movements in Indonesia, including the environmental and climate movements.”