One Country’s Dream of EV-Driven Prosperity Helps Fuel a Coal Binge Instead
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One Country’s Dream of EV-Driven Prosperity Helps Fuel a Coal Binge Instead

Indonesia pitches its plan to leverage natural resources as a model for other developing nations

By JON EMONT
Mon, Feb 5, 2024 9:06amGrey Clock 4 min

A few years ago, Indonesia set out to turn its treasure trove of nickel into an electric-car manufacturing boom.

It imposed a sweeping ban on the export of raw nickel. That meant that companies wanting to tap the world’s largest source of the mineral—used in the most powerful type of EV batteries—would have to build smelters in Indonesia. Officials bet that factories to make EV batteries and entire electric cars would also follow, spawning end-to-end supply chains close to the mineral bounty.

The smelters came, and Indonesia’s nickel industry witnessed explosive growth. But powering it is a coal binge that is throwing off the country’s climate goals. And Indonesians are still waiting for EV makers to lay down production lines.

As President Joko Widodo prepares to leave office this year after a decade—the most he can serve—he is exhorting his potential successors to stick with the policy that is at the centre of his economic legacy. Indonesia holds presidential elections on Feb. 14, and a new leader will take charge in October.

Widodo has cast his plan, referred to in economist-speak as downstreaming, as the answer to the question of how Indonesia will become a rich nation. He says the country is reversing a 400-year pattern dating back to colonial times of being exploited for its natural resources and getting little in return. He has prodded other developing nations to follow its lead.

Last year, officials escorted delegations from mineral-rich Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo to one of Indonesia’s largest nickel industrial parks to show them the scale of Indonesia’s achievements. New Chinese-built smelters dot the archipelago. The value of Indonesia’s nickel exports is up four times since 2019 to around $33 billion.

Not everyone believes the silver metal is a silver bullet.

Nickel smelters have led to a surge in coal use, with new coal plants coming up at a time when the world is trying to phase out the fossil fuel. A January report by Climate Rights International, a U.S. environmental group, said that a single nickel-focused industrial park located on eastern Indonesia’s Maluku islands will burn more coal than Spain or Brazil when it is fully operational.

“We are sacrificing the environment and society, while at the same time getting limited profits for the country,” Muhaimin Iskandar, a vice-presidential candidate in the coming election, said during a televised debate with his political opponents.

Other candidates have pledged to carry forward the president’s nickel policies, including the front-runner for president, Prabowo Subianto, who has said it is much better to export electric-vehicle batteries than raw nickel.

The “dirty nickel” reputation is threatening the very economic opportunities Indonesia covets. In October, nine U.S. senators signed a letter opposing a proposed free-trade agreement to source critical minerals from Indonesia, citing environmental and safety concerns. Without a free-trade deal, EV batteries with substantial quantities of Indonesia-processed nickel won’t be eligible for a major U.S. tax credit.

That makes the country’s nickel less attractive to Western EV makers, who are already battling questions from green groups about the environmental fallout of the country’s sprawling nickel operations.

In a sign of the growing unease, a deputy director for batteries and critical materials at the U.S. Energy Department, Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes, voiced concern in a LinkedIn post last month about what she called the grip of dirty Indonesian nickel on the market. Indonesia accounts for half the global nickel supply, up from a quarter in 2018.

The problems with nickel are also pushing EV makers to rework car batteries and go nickel-free. A lithium-iron-phosphate alternative is gaining traction, though it remains less powerful than batteries containing nickel.

Then there is the question of whether the policy is taking Indonesia toward Widodo’s goal of downstreaming—that is, a shift to higher-value manufacturing. Widodo has long said the endgame isn’t localising nickel processing but rather attracting EV and battery factories. Anything less, he says, could put Indonesia on the same track as some commodity-rich Latin American economies that have languished.

But so far, EV makers haven’t rushed into Indonesia. Tesla, which Widodo has assiduously courted, including on a 2022 trip to Texas to meet with founder Elon Musk, hasn’t shown any signs it plans to set up a factory in the country. No other Western automakers have built EV factories either, though General Motors has a stake in one China-based automaker producing electric cars in Indonesia. Some, like Ford, have made deals to tie up nickel supply.

Korean automaker Hyundai has since 2021 operated one of Indonesia’s only EV factories, focused on the domestic market. The unit can produce 150,000 vehicles a year, but made fewer than 9,500 in 2022 and 2023. Hyundai and Korea’s LG expect to begin producing battery cells at a plant in West Java this year.

Automakers generally look to set up battery and EV plants in the markets where people are already buying electric cars. That puts Indonesia, where few consumers have switched from combustion-engine vehicles, at a disadvantage. The country has a limited charging network and gasoline is heavily subsidised.

Indonesian policymakers who believe the country’s nickel bounty gives it leverage over carmakers are mistaken, said Tom Lembong, a former trade minister under Widodo. He pointed to the growth of nickel-free batteries as a warning against betting big on nickel.

Lembong, who is advising presidential candidate Anies Baswedan—whose ticket advocates focusing on promoting labor-intensive industries—said Indonesia has made limited progress moving up the value chain.

“The irony about this is they call it downstreaming, but we’re still very upstream,” he said.

Septian Hario Seto, a senior Indonesian official involved in nickel policymaking, acknowledged that EV battery and car factories have been slower to come than nickel smelters. The government has brought new regulations to address that, he said, such as one that makes it easier for EV makers to import cars into Indonesia on the condition they later build a factory.

Last month, Chinese EV giant BYD said it would begin car sales in Indonesia, and break ground on a manufacturing unit later this year.

Overall, Seto said the nickel policy has been successful, boosting economic growth in less-developed eastern regions where the nickel is found, and providing jobs and tax revenue. The government has taken steps to limit environmental degradation, such as by banning companies from jettisoning mining waste into the ocean, and will try to bring hydropower projects online as an alternative to coal, he said.

Cullen Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said there are two ways to assess Indonesia’s industrial policy.

“It’s been successful at driving foreign investment and building nickel processing capacity,” he said. “So far it hasn’t achieved the fully integrated mine-to-EV battery assembly to which it aspires.”



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Call to cut corporate carbon footprints is loudest from inside organizations, outweighing demand from customers and regulators, survey finds

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The pressure on companies to cut their carbon footprint is coming more from within the organisations themselves than from customers and regulators, according to a new report.

Three-quarters of business leaders from across the Group of 20 nations said the push to invest in renewable energy is being driven mainly by their own corporate boards, with 77% of U.S. business leaders saying the pressure was extreme or significant, according to a new survey conducted by law firm Ashurst.

The corporate call to decarbonise is intensifying, Ashurst said, with 30% of business leaders saying the pressure from their own boards was extreme, up from 25% in 2022.

“We’re seeing that the energy transition is an area that is firmly embedded in the thinking of investors, corporates, governments and others, so there is a real emphasis on setting and acting on these plans now,” said Michael Burns, global co-head of energy at Ashurst. “That said, the pace of transition and the stage of the journey very much depends from business to business.”

The shift in sentiment comes as companies ramp up investment in renewable spending to meet their net-zero goals. Ashurst found that 71% of the more than 2,000 respondents to its survey had committed to a net-zero target, while 26% of respondents said their targets were under development.

Ashurst also found that solar was the most popular method to decarbonise, with 72% of respondents currently investing in or committed to investing in the clean energy technology. The law firm also found that companies tended to be the most active when it comes to renewable investments, with 52% of the respondents falling into this category. The average turnover of those companies was $15.1 billion.

Meanwhile, 81% of energy-sector respondents to the survey said they see investment in renewables as essential to the organisation’s strategic growth.

Burns said the 2030 timeline to reach net zero was very important to the companies it surveyed. “We are increasingly seeing corporate and other stakeholders actively setting and embracing trajectories to achieve net zero. However, greater clarity and transparency on the standards for measuring and managing these net-zero commitments is needed to ensure consistency in approach and, importantly, outcome,” he said.

Legal battles over climate change and renewable investing are also likely to rise, with 68% of respondents saying they expect to see an increase in legal disputes over the next five years, while only 16% anticipate a decrease, the report said.

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