Jakarta: On the front line of the climate crisis

By Mark Watts, Executive Director, C40 Cities

Last week I had an envigorating city hall meeting with the Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, as we discussed his plans to clean up the air of his sprawling mega-city, setting Jakarta on a pathway to a low carbon economy, while also defending citizens against a threat from climate change that is more immediately existential than in almost any other city that I have visited.

Jakarta has been dubbed the ‘sinking city’.  

Some 40% of the north of this city of 10.5 million people is now below sea level, as a result of a lethal combination of rising sea levels and illegal pumping from underground water supplies. Coastal districts have sunk as much as 4 metres in the last two decades, and flooding in 2017 bought the whole city to a standstill as streets turned into rivers. Hundreds of cities around the world are vulnerable to rising sea levels, but the threat in Jakarta is even more urgent, because the land on which it is built is also sinking, faster than any other big city on the planet. I’m told that it is not uncommon for rivers to begin to flow upstream, ordinary rains regularly swamp neighborhoods and buildings slowly disappear underground, swallowed by the earth.

Hydrologists say the city has only a decade to halt its sinking. If it can’t, 80% of northern Jakarta, with its millions of residents, will end up below sea level, threatening much of the nation’s economy. Eventually, Jakarta won’t be able to build walls high enough to hold back the rivers, canals and the rising Java Sea.

So the city is fighting back.

Governor Baswedan and the citizens of Jakarta recognize the need for bold and urgent climate action. I was delighted to be in Jakarta to join the Governor as he committed his city to join more than 80 others around the world, to delivering emissions reductions and climate resilience consistent with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. The recent IPCC report on Global Warming of 1.5°C laid out in stark terms the devastating impacts of uncontrolled global heating. It is cities like Jakarta that will feel those impacts most acutely. The Governor’s commitment to developing an Inclusive Jakarta Climate Action Plan couldn’t be more urgent or necessary.

Working together with C40 Cities – with support from the Government of Denmark - Jakarta’s Climate Action Plan will include transformational actions to tackle climate change by reducing emissions from transportation, buildings, energy production and waste management while strengthening the ability to deal with the impacts of climate change through adaptation.

In a city that had been dealing with the challenges of traffic congestion and air pollution, transportation plays a key role and is top of mind with regards to recent concrete initiatives by the Governor. Using Seoul as a benchmark, the city is undertaking important initiative to bring into the formal public bus service the minivans and microbuses that currently operate around the city. Drivers will be paid regular salaries and incentivised to travel on regular routes and keep moving, rather than to block up roads by waiting to pick up more passengers on the most popular routes. 

I was in town as the new metro line was opening, with a new light rail also currently being tested before launching at the end of 2019.  With a revitalized Bus Rapid Transit system operated by TransJakarta that increased daily passengers from 200,000 to 750,000 Jakartans in the last 3 years, and with the desire to shift to electric buses,  the Governor hopes to address the long entrenched problems that has plagued the city.  But as elsewhere in the world, some traditional manufacturers are saying it will be many years before it is possible to have fully electric fleets. At a press conference with the Governor we discussed how this is simply not true as in Latin America and in China, where I am today, entire fleets are already electric - 16,000 vehicles in Shenzhen, with the aim of 100% electric buses deployed in 30 major Chinese cities by 2020.

With all these, the Governor’s plan for 95% of Jakarta’s residents to be within 500m of public transport by 2022 could well be on its way.

We also discussed the city’s impressive plans to strengthen its green building codes and improve performance. Regular meetings with key stakeholders (Green Jakarta Forum) to embed the standards and simplify them, while vastly expanding the number of buildings to be covered, are held to ensure its effective and efficient implementation in the future.  This is in line with the city's target of 30% reduction of energy, water and waste from buildings by 2030.

The city is already working hard to improve Jakarta’s drainage, to prevent further sinking. Investments in new infrastructure and ongoing adaptation initiatives have already seen a decrease in flooding by 28%. The city is likewise continuing with its efforts to clean up Jakarta's 13 rivers to clear it from pollution from sewage and plastic wastes, which currently makes the city more vulnerable to flash flooding. 

The future of Jakarta will be shaped by the innovation, determination and leadership of its people. I have seen an example of this in my visit to Kampong Iklim where the citizens, spurred by their passion and commitment to create a better and liveable community, have undertaken various efforts to green, enhance walkability and cycling, recycle waste, and beautify their neighbourhoods.  All these conducted with much enthusiasm and on-the-ground involvement of women and men.

I leave Jakarta confident that Jakartans will take the action and devise the solutions necessary to prevent the city sinking beneath the waves. Yet, rising sea levels and increases in global temperatures are dependent on all of our actions and decisions. Mayors and Governors of the world’s great cities are stepping up their ambition and committing the boldest climate action. Now is the moment for national governments, businesses and investors to match their ambition, to safeguard the future of Jakarta and all cities around the world.