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Collaborative stewardship: pioneering a green nickel future for Indonesia and ASEAN

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By Alex Hong

· 18 min read

Go forth and enjoy the green surge instead of the nickel rush! Only when sustainably utilised will Indonesia's enormous nickel riches spark a sustainable energy revolution. The notion of collaborative stewardship is unveiled in this commentary. Indonesia can achieve financial success, environmental preservation, and leadership in the clean technology race by emphasising sustainability and regional cooperation. This paves the way for a sustainable and just ASEAN, bringing the region closer to a more optimistic and environmentally conscious future. It's not just about Indonesia's future.

I. Introduction

Indonesia is a vast archipelago nation that is home to the world's greatest nickel reserves, a geological treasure trove. This metal is more than simply a common commodity; it is the foundation of the clean energy revolution and an essential component of the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs and transform energy storage. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the swift uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) will propel a 67% increase in world nickel consumption by 2030. With a strategic strategy we may refer to as collaborative stewardship, rather than a hasty "nickel rush," Indonesia is well-positioned to take advantage of this demand.

But the reality of today's world presents a worrisome image. In the mining business, unsustainable techniques frequently result in deforestation, water pollution, and societal unrest. In Sulawesi, a biodiversity hotspot, nickel mining greatly accelerated deforestation, according to a 2021 assessment by the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI). These actions not only jeopardise environmental sustainability but also don't bring about long-term financial gains for nearby populations.

It is impossible to overestimate the role that nickel has played in the global transition to electricity. The primary technology used in electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy storage, lithium-ion batteries, is highly dependent on nickel. Nickel can make up anywhere from 5% to 30% of the weight of a conventional EV battery, for example. By 2040, more than 90% of the world's nickel consumption is expected to come from the clean energy sector, according to IEA predictions. As long as it takes proper care of its nickel resources, Indonesia has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lead this revolutionary change.

II. The nickel opportunity: powering Indonesia's sustainable future 

Understanding the global demand for nickel and its application:

Without a doubt, nickel has a bright future. With the global shift away from fossil fuels accelerating, nickel demand is predicted to soar. According to a 2022 research by Fitch Solutions, increasing BEV sales and battery production will cause a nickel market shortfall by the middle of the 2020s. With an estimated 24% of the world's nickel reserves, Indonesia has the potential to play a significant role in this rapidly expanding market.

Indonesia has a rare chance to take advantage of major economic gains from this. According to a study conducted by the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF), Indonesia's nickel sector could boost GDP by up to USD 40 billion by 2040, generating millions of employment and stimulating the nation's economy.

However, Indonesia can take use of the nickel boom to move itself closer to a more sustainable future, going beyond the export of raw materials. Here's how to do it:

  • Value-added processing: Indonesia may concentrate on building up its domestic capacity to process nickel into higher-value items like nickel cathodes, an essential part of lithium-ion batteries, rather than just exporting raw nickel. As a result, the economy would become more resilient and diversified, gaining a larger portion of the value chain and increasing export earnings.

  • Green industrialization: Indonesia may develop a new wave of sustainable enterprises by luring investments in environmentally friendly technology like battery production and infrastructure for renewable energy. Indonesia would be positioned as a leader in the clean energy revolution in addition to reducing dependency on fossil resources.

  • Balance of payments boost: Indonesia now imports fossil fuels at a cost of billions of dollars every year (became a net importer since 2004). A more stable balance of payments and enhanced energy security can result from the nation's substantial reduction in its reliance on imported oil by prioritising the production of electric vehicles and indigenous batteries.

  • Job creation and economic diversification: The shift towards a sustainable nickel industry has promise for the generation of millions of new employment in a range of industries, including manufacturing, renewable energy, and processing and mining. By diversifying its economy, Indonesia would be less susceptible to changes in the price of commodities globally and be able to achieve long-term economic growth.

Indonesia's leadership in sustainable nickel stewardship can also have a profound impact on the ASEAN region. 

Indonesia may work with its neighbours to create regional standards for ethical mining methods and environmental preservation as a key member of the ten-nation bloc (ASEAN). In addition to ensuring the nickel industry's long-term survival, this would encourage collaboration and knowledge exchange within the region. Furthermore, Indonesia's strong and sustainable nickel industry can act as a role model for other resource-rich Southeast Asian nations, promoting economic integration across the region and a shared transition to a more environmentally friendly future.

Through the adoption of cooperative stewardship and the utilisation of the worldwide nickel market, Indonesia holds the possibility to usher in a novel phase of enduring success. This future is about making the environment better and healthier for future generations, not just about reaping economic rewards. In this future, Indonesia will be a shining example of a sustainable and just society, leading the globe in the clean energy revolution.

III. The opportunity: embracing stewardship

The adoption of appropriate stewardship is the first step towards realising Indonesia's nickel potential. This is far more than just maximising earnings in the near future. It's about fostering an ethical and sustainable future for the sector, one that helps the country, local people, and the environment.

Proper stewardship encompasses several key pillars:

1. Sustainable mining practices:

  • Minimizing environmental damage: Enacting more stringent laws and creative extraction methods to reduce soil erosion, water pollution, and deforestation. When compared to conventional techniques, technologies like high-pressure acid leaching can drastically minimise waste production and water consumption.

  • Renewable energy sources: Utilising renewable energy sources, such as solar and geothermal power, to power mining operations can drastically lower the carbon footprint and air pollution associated with the sector. In addition to being good for the environment, this move towards clean energy also encourages cost savings and energy security.

  • Land rehabilitation and restoration: It is imperative to make a commitment to restoring mined land. This can entail establishing sustainable land management techniques for next generations, reviving biodiversity, and planting native trees.

2. Community engagement and benefit-sharing:

  • Empowering local communities: Including the community in decision-making and making sure that mining ventures actually benefit them. Programmes for developing skills, infrastructure improvements, and revenue-sharing arrangements may all be part of this.

  • Fair compensation: Ensuring that mining operations do not interfere with traditional means of subsistence and giving local populations just remuneration for the usage of their land.

  • Respecting indigenous rights: Protecting the rights of native groups whose territory may be impacted by mining activities. Before any project starts, this entails getting their free, prior, and informed consent.

3. Transparency and accountability:

  • Robust governance frameworks: Putting strong governance mechanisms in place to guarantee accountability and openness across the mining value chain. This includes actions to stop corruption and illicit mining.

  • Responsible supply chains: Working together with global partners to create and implement ethical employment practices and responsible supply chain norms that track the origin of nickel.

Indonesia is not alone in this journey. 

Global case studies provide insightful guidance on attaining sustainable nickel stewardship. Brazil, for instance, has put in place a certification programme for ethical nickel production that guarantees social and environmental protections all the way down the supply chain. In a similar vein, Norway has set up a sovereign wealth fund into which it allocates profits from resource extraction to sustainable industries like renewable energy. These illustrations show that practicing responsible stewardship is not only feasible but also a means of achieving a better future.

The actual potential of Indonesia's nickel endowment can be realised with a commitment to joint stewardship. This strategy will ensure long-term financial gains while also leaving a legacy of social fairness and environmental sustainability. Together, ASEAN, Indonesia, and the world community can benefit from this as we work to create a more sustainable future.

IV. Implications for Indonesia and ASEAN

By embracing collaborative stewardship of its nickel resources, Indonesia can unlock a multitude of benefits, not just for itself but for the entire ASEAN region. Here's how:

1. Leader in the clean technology revolution:

  • Investment magnet: Maintaining a sustainable nickel output will draw in foreign capital for the creation of electric vehicles, batteries, and other clean technology. This capital inflow will put Indonesia at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution, increase economic growth, and generate jobs.

  • Job creation engine: Millions of additional employment in a variety of fields, including data science, engineering, and renewable energy and battery recycling, might be generated by the shift to a sustainable nickel economy. This highly qualified labour force will be crucial to fostering innovation and advancing Indonesia's economic growth.

  • Innovation hub: Indonesia has the potential to become a centre of innovation in the area as it makes investments in clean technology and sustainable mining methods. As a result, Indonesia will become a pioneer in clean technology solutions, draw in top personnel, and collaborate with foreign research institutions.

2. Model for responsible resource management:

Other resource-rich countries in the global South can benefit much from Indonesia's achievement of sustainable nickel stewardship. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), another significant producer of nickel, and other nations face comparable difficulties in striking a balance between social responsibility, environmental preservation, and economic growth. Through demonstrating its dedication to ethical mining methods, Indonesia can encourage other countries to adopt similar measures, so contributing to a more sustainable future for the extractive resources sector as a whole.

3. Catalyst for regional integration:

A strong and sustainable nickel industry in Indonesia has the potential to spur further ASEAN regional integration. Cooperation between adjacent nations can result in:

  • Standardized practices: By establishing regional guidelines for environmentally sound mining methods and resource management, the bloc will guarantee fair competition and encourage responsible resource management.

  • Knowledge sharing: By exchanging best practices and knowledge with other ASEAN members, Indonesia can promote capacity building and knowledge transfer throughout the region. As a result, Southeast Asia will have a workforce that is more competitive and skilled.

  • Regional value chains: In the clean energy sector, cooperation can result in the creation of local value chains for the production of batteries and electric cars, strengthening economic links and advancing regional self-sufficiency.

4. Nusantara: a living laboratory for sustainability

The construction of Nusantara, the country's future capital, offers a singular chance to highlight Indonesia's dedication to sustainable development. Working with the ASEAN member states, Nusantara can serve as a living laboratory for introducing state-of-the-art sustainable technologies. Through attracting investments, facilitating knowledge transfer, and encouraging regional collaboration on sustainable urban development, this collaboration has the potential to multiply.

Envision Nusantara as an eco-friendly city run entirely on renewable energy, complete with smart grids, environmentally friendly waste disposal techniques, and eco-friendly buildings made of materials that are readily available in the area. This showcase project can act as a model for sustainable urban development throughout Southeast Asia in addition to serving as an inspiration for other Indonesian towns.

The road ahead: a call to collaborative action

Indonesia has a tremendous opportunity. Indonesia can unlock a future of economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, and regional leadership by embracing collaborative stewardship of its nickel resources. However, we can only reach this future by working together.

I implore the government of Indonesia, foreign businesses, and civil society organisations to collaborate in this project. Together, let's build strong governance structures, make investments in environmentally friendly technology, and give local communities more influence. By working together, we can make Indonesia's nickel endowment a potent force for sustainable development that benefits not just the country itself but also the whole ASEAN region and the international community. Now is the moment to take action. Let's take advantage of this chance to create a more promising and sustainable future for everybody. 

V. Beyond zero-sum geopolitics: embracing collaboration

Unquestionably, a "nickel rush" is alluring. On the other hand, focusing narrowly on maximising earnings in the near term by using unsustainable practices might have disastrous results. Among the risks connected to this strategy are resource depletion, societal unrest, and environmental deterioration.

Moreover, it is as harmful to see nickel only from a geostrategic perspective, where nations struggle for supremacy. Trade conflicts, political unrest, and a slide towards the lowest possible social and environmental standards can all result from this zero-sum mindset.
The way ahead is to embrace cooperation. Together, the nations of ASEAN, Indonesia, and the rest of the world can realise nickel's full promise for a sustainable future. How to do it is as follows:

1. Knowledge sharing and joint research:

  • ASEAN Collaboration: Indonesia can take advantage of ASEAN's platform to encourage information exchange and cooperative research initiatives among its member nations. Creating best practices for environmentally friendly mining techniques, cleaner extraction technology, and effective battery recycling techniques can be the main goals of this partnership. By leveraging on the power of comparative advantage, member nations such as Singapore can be instrumental in accelerating Indonesia’s digitalisation as well as other member nations to create better opportunities for information sharing, business opportunities and collaboration. 

  • Capacity building: Building the capability of local communities, business executives, and government representatives might be the main goal of regional projects. By doing this, it will be ensured that all parties have the information and abilities needed to put sustainable practices into effect and uphold them. There are several chances for wise policy, governance, and incentives to promote long-term cooperation and research. 

2. Establishing international standards:

  • Standardization for sustainability: International standards for fair trade and sustainable mining are important steps towards responsible resource management. The standardisation of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) terminology through initiatives such as the ASEAN Taxonomy version 3 can be extremely important in improving information exchange, drawing in sustainable finance, and promoting regional collaboration.

  • Traceability and transparency: Sturdy traceability systems are able to follow nickel from the mine to the market, guaranteeing ethical labour practices and ethical sourcing all the way through the supply chain. Customers will feel more confident about the sustainability of Indonesian nickel thanks to this transparency, which will build confidence and increase demand for commodities that are obtained ethically. By using Digital Ledger Technology (DLT), the application of blockchain technologies can significantly improve provenance, traceability, and transparency while also building trust. 

3. Multilateral cooperation for shared solutions:

  • Addressing climate change: Addressing climate change is a shared duty of the entire world community. The development and implementation of clean technologies that will lower greenhouse gas emissions and lessen the negative environmental effects of the nickel industry require multilateral cooperation.

  • Financing sustainability: Financing sustainable nickel projects in Indonesia might be a critical function of international financial institutions. This includes funding for community development programmes, greener extraction technologies, and infrastructure for renewable energy.

A model for the Global South

Other resource-rich countries in the global South can learn from Indonesia's successful approach of cooperative management of its nickel resources. Through showcasing the coexistence of sustainable development and environmental stewardship, Indonesia has the potential to serve as a model for sustainable development in the developing world. The prosperity, stability and the development of Indonesia (which 50% of ASEAN citizens resides) it is of pivotal importance to the future of ASEAN as well as the Global South. 

The nickel boom offers Indonesia a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Indonesia can pave the way for future economic expansion, environmental stewardship, and regional leadership by adopting collaborative stewardship. On the other hand, achieving this future will require teamwork. Let's put an end to the "nickel rush" attitude and adopt a cooperative strategy based on information exchange, global norms, and multilateral cooperation. By working together, we can turn Indonesia's nickel endowment into a potent force for prosperity among everyone, securing a sustainable future for future generations.

VI. The short-term nickel ban: a stepping stone, not an end goal

Indonesia took a risk by outlawing the export of nickel ore in 2020 in an effort to support homegrown value-added and processing sectors. Although the goal of obtaining a larger portion of the nickel's economic benefits is a reasonable justification for the restriction, it is crucial to recognise its limitations.

First off, the prohibition has caused price surges and adversely affected downstream businesses that significantly depend on imported nickel ore by upsetting the global nickel supply chain. This demonstrates the interdependence of the world market and the possible unforeseen repercussions of taking unilateral action.

Second, the prohibition by itself won't work in the long run. It does not ensure sustainable methods, but it does encourage domestic processing. Instead of encouraging a really responsible business, the ban might merely lead to unsustainable local processing in the absence of strong laws, enforcement mechanisms, and a commitment to social and environmental protections.

The path forward: beyond bans

To achieve this, one must have a long-term perspective, unyielding political will, and a dedication to the following:

  • Comprehensive regulatory framework: Creating and implementing a thorough regulatory framework that requires mining operations to be ecologically friendly, encourages social responsibility, and guarantees supply chain transparency.

  • Investing in sustainable technologies: Putting money into the development of environmentally friendly extraction technology, effective processing techniques, and conscientious waste management strategies.

  • Community engagement and empowerment: Including local people in the decision-making process, making sure they gain anything directly from mining operations, and protecting their rights.

Indonesia's political will: a catalyst for transformation

The political will and leadership of Indonesia are essential for accelerating this change. Maintaining a commitment to sustainability will help Indonesia become known as a trustworthy and ethical producer of nickel, draw in foreign investment, and maintain investor confidence in addition to ensuring responsible resource management. Its continuing commitment to infrastructural development and political stability will be crucial to ASEAN's success as a regional organisation. 

Positive trends and the power of collaboration

In Indonesia, there are already encouraging tendencies that give optimism for the future. The nation's determination to extracting more value from its nickel resources is demonstrated by projects such as the Indonesia Battery Holding Company, a state-owned company tasked with growing the homegrown battery market. Furthermore, Indonesia's cooperation on battery technology development with nearby nations like Singapore shows the effectiveness of regional alliances in accelerating the shift to renewable energy.

VII. Conclusion: a call to action

For ASEAN, the world community, and Indonesia in particular, the nickel boom poses a crossroads. This is an incredibly promising moment where we may create a new route towards a sustainable future driven by cooperative efforts and responsible resource management.

We must work together to complete this journey. We implore all international players to work together with Indonesia and ASEAN, including businesses, governments, and civil society organisations. Together, let's strive to:

  • Champion collaborative stewardship: Encourage the world to progress towards cooperative nickel resource stewardship. This entails creating strong governance frameworks, upholding global guidelines for ethical sourcing, and encouraging cross-border information exchange.

  • Invest in a sustainable future: Encourage the business sector to make investments in cleaner extraction techniques, responsible battery manufacture, and renewable energy technology across the ASEAN region. This will greatly aid in reducing climate change while also opening up economic prospects. Sustainable processes in a corporate value chain needs to be view as a differentiator and business opportunity in the long term rather than “cost centre”. A new look at existing model to incorporate sustainability will need to be sought, understood and implemented effectively 

  • Empower local communities: Make sure the communities that will be directly impacted by nickel development initiatives have a say in the decision-making processes. This involves making investments in educational and skill-building initiatives that enable the local populace to contribute productively to the shift to sustainable energy.

A united ASEAN: leading the way

Positive developments provide a taste of what an ASEAN united can accomplish. Collaboration is exemplified by multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Indonesia Battery Corporation (IBC) and regional cooperation efforts on battery technology development. By expanding on these achievements, ASEAN may establish itself as a world leader in the ethical production and use of nickel for the development of renewable energy.

Together, with international partners, ASEAN can change the story of nickel. We can put an end to the "nickel rush" attitude and embrace a future based on environmental stewardship, shared prosperity, and a dedication to a fair transition for everyone. Allow Indonesia's nickel endowment to serve as a spark for a more sustainable and just global community. The decisions we make today will determine the future we create. Together, let's take advantage of this chance to pave the road for a sustainable future where nickel empowers rather than exploits and teamwork is the norm.

Indonesia's green ambitions:

An further hopeful indication is Indonesia's dedication to renewable energy. By 2025, the nation wants to have 23% of its energy coming from renewable sources. Its serious pursuit of a sustainable future is evidenced by projects like the creation of green industrial parks that are powered by renewable energy.

One cannot emphasise how urgent action is. The need for appropriate resource management has become imperative due to the impending climate disaster. Our decisions now will shape the future we inherit because we are at a critical juncture.

A call to collective action:

Let the nickel endowment in Indonesia serve as a driving force for global equity and cleanliness rather than as a curse. Let's put an end to the "nickel rush" attitude and embrace a future based on environmental stewardship, shared prosperity, and a dedication to a fair transition for everyone. We can change the nickel story together.

This is an appeal to all parties involved to take action. Businesses, spend money on clean technology and ethical sourcing. Governments, adopt strict laws and encourage global collaboration. Civil society organisations empower local communities and demand accountability from all parties involved. Through cooperative stewardship, we can fully realise nickel's potential for a more promising future.

Now is the moment to take action. Our current decisions will determine the future we create. Together, let's take advantage of this chance and pave the road for a sustainable future where nickel empowers rather than exploits and teamwork is the norm.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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