Capital Punishment (or, so long, Jakarta)
During the last week of August, President Joko Widodo announced that Indonesia would develop a new capital city in Borneo, and move government offices there from Jakarta, Indonesia’s historic capital. The combination of Jakarta’s own sinking – as it pumps so much water from its underground aquifer that part of the city is subsiding a foot a year – and a rising Java Sea, has spelled the end for one of Asia’s largest cities (Jakarta is sinking so fast, it may wind up underwater). This big decision will have immense repercussions – and Indonesia may well prove to be a trendsetter.
Jakarta may be the first capital to be relocated as a consequence of climate change, but it will have company soon. For those looking at Jakarta as an aberration, let’s look at two things. First, nearly two-thirds of the world’s major cities are on a coast: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Shenzen, Singapore, Stockholm, Barcelona, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Montevideo, Dar Es Salaam, Capetown, Algiers, and a list way too long to continue. Second, expectations for sea level rise. For those who don’t look at this issue often, well, fasten your seat belts. At the time of the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, expectations for sea level rise to 2100 tended to see 3 feet as a maximum, with rise in subsequent centuries depending on emissions. By the end of 2017, two years later, 3 feet was beginning to be seen as a minimum sea level rise for the century, rather than a maximum. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), supposedly an authority, projects 8 feet. Maximum potential sea level rise by 2100 in some studies, in the lifetime of most of today’s younger generation? 20 feet.
Twenty feet higher shorelines sound far more threatening than three feet. Which will be right? Well, unfortunately, it’s very hard to tell. And the projections are changing rapidly. Part of the answer depends on GHG emission scenarios in the future. But a very big part of the answer depends on how fast ice melts where it locks up water in glaciers. A key problem in looking ahead, as well-framed by David Wallace-Wells in his excellent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, is that the break-up of ice represents an entirely new physics, never observed in human history and still poorly understood. When we look at what is actually happening with ice melt, it paints a grim picture. A new study in 2018 found that the melt rate of the great Antarctic ice sheet tripled from 1992 to 2017, a pace which makes 20 feet by century-end is no longer out of the question. The Greenland ice sheet alone is losing almost a billion tons of ice every day. And in 2017 it was discovered that two glaciers of the East Antarctic sheet were losing 18 billion tons of ice a year; if/when both go, scientists expect 16 feet just from the two glaciers. Sound bad? Projections are getting worse, quickly. Melt of the two Antarctic ice sheets – parts of which are visibly melting far faster than had been anticipated only a few years ago — could raise sea level by 200 feet. And as science journalist Peter Brannen noted, the last time the earth was 4 degrees warmer, sea level was 260 feet higher.
How threatening all this is also depends on expectations of time. 2100 sounds very far away, even though a substantial portion of people alive today will be alive then. Sea level rise, in most people’s understanding, will be very slow, and there will have been plenty of time to “solve” the problem. However… The other piece we’re learning about in terms of ice melt is, well, it can happen not so slowly. As noted by Bill McKibben in his latest book, Falter, in the distant past, sea levels often rose and fell with breathtaking speed. 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age, huge amounts of ice thawed, raising the sea level by sixty feet, with 13 feet perhaps having come in a single century. Last month, Scientific American highlighted a study which articulated the direction in which projections are clearly heading:
Scientists have been underestimating the pace of climate change. It was reported recently that in the one place where it was carefully measured, the underwater melting that is driving disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt. When new observations of the climate system have provided more or better data, or permitted us to reevaluate old ones, the findings for ice extent, sea level rise and ocean temperature have generally been worse than earlier prevailing views.
For those who have lived or traveled in the American northwest, the recent understanding of the glacial floods which shaped the basin of the Columbia River has some sobering resonance. Geologists now understand that the mechanics of that ice melt, when the glaciers of then Lake Missoula were thawing, were such that melt built-up behind a wall of ice, and when that plug let go, water rushed out of the melted glacier down the valley in a wall estimated to be… 2,000 feet high – enough water fast enough to have emptied the equivalent of Lake Michigan in two days.
So, if you worry about 4-8 feet rise in sea levels, things could be a lot worse! And even 4-8 feet, while it may be very aggressive compared to other projections, means that as much as 5% of the world’s population will be flooded every single year.
What is Indonesia doing, then? How will the change of location of the capital work? Much remains unclear, but announced plans call for construction of the first phase of the new city to begin in 2021 and to be finished by 2024. The entire city, targeted for completion in 2045, will occupy about 495,000 acres of land, twice the size of New York City. The proposed location in Borneo is near the relatively underdeveloped cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. President Widodo noted that moving the country’s capital will be a mammoth and expensive undertaking. Estimated cost, according to the planning agency: US$34 billion. Chances of that being the final cost? Very low.
To fund this move, the Government has flagged some interesting ideas. Which, somewhat strangely, rely heavily on leaving Jakarta itself (the city, not the “capital”) where it is and selling land there to the private sector. This envisions a national capital move somewhat like those to Brasilia, or Abuja, where “just government” moves. A Finance Ministry official said the leasing of government-owned land and properties in Jakarta to private companies could help it raise 1/3 of the amount needed to develop the new capital site. On top of that private companies could be given a property such as a ministerial building in Jakarta in exchange for building a similar facility in the new capital, and government-owned land and properties in Jakarta could be sold to private companies. In fact, the Government has announced that it will spend more (!) money “rejuvenating” Jakarta than it plans to spend on the new capital. This includes US$22 billion for the development of public transport such as the extension of the Jakarta mass rapid transit and light rail transit network, $6B for delivering clean water to all city residents, and $5B for flood mitigation.
Homeowners across the world affected by rising seas, or at this stage just by increased flooding from extreme weather events, have been faced by the “stay or move” dilemma driving Indonesia’s move of its capital. Most respond to this choice with “stay”, at least initially, and many residents of Jakarta are in that camp. It is very expensive for homeowners to respond with a “stay and move” approach, as Indonesia has for now announced. Chances are pretty good that it will prove too expensive for Indonesia. And, given how projections for sea level rise are getting worse, the appearance of there being a choice may be illusory. We’d give pretty strong odds that not much will be happening in Jakarta by the end of the century (one model shows 95% of north Jakarta underwater by 2050). Yet this same dilemma is coming soon to a city near you. A late 2018 report stated Los Angeles would need to spend at least $6B to avoid slipping into the sea. Last month Wired reported the cost of protecting US cities from sea level rise at over $400 Billion. Even in the wealthy USA, it’s not clear where this kind of money might come from. Voters of high-income San Francisco approved a $425 million climate change protection bond — to pay for only 1/4 of the costs of fortifying a seawall. China may find the money to fortify Shanghai and Shenzen, and Singapore may also figure it out. But for capitals of low-to-mid income Emerging Markets, like Indonesia, where the money comes from will be a huge issue — soon. And without money to fund the “stay” option, or with “stay” being perhaps at best a delay in the inevitable “move,” chances are pretty good that a much higher percentage of affected low-to-mid income than OECD country capitals will move – or drown…
The infrastructure implications of moving a capital city are, of course, major. It’s not just people who need to be moved, but power plants, ports and airports, which are also affected by sea level rise. Then new roads, water and sanitation fixed infrastructure will be needed wherever the new capital is located. Each part of that infrastructure is likely be somewhat different. Thermal power plants, often located near demand center capital cities, may have somewhat lower moving costs – the assets can be moved and used in a new location, or it may in any case be cheaper to replace them with lower-cost renewables, depending on the situation. Ports may stay put, as they’re by definition a coastal asset, so costs will relate more to raising of facilities, and so be lower than greenfield assets. Airports likely will need to be rebuilt as greenfield near the new capital, so will have the same higher price tag as roads, water and sanitation. To some extent, urban transport infrastructure in a newly designed city may benefit from new mobility technologies which have arisen in the last few years — though it is unclear whether benefits would be mostly from increased access and user convenience, or also in terms of lower capital costs. Water and sanitation will probably be more expensive than earlier investments, as both coastal and inland cities are likely to need flood management investments from more intense rainfall events. But even without numbers, or more precision, one can tell that moving a capital is going to be an expensive proposition.
Adaptation to climate change will have very large implications for infrastructure. Many more coastal cities will be faced with the kind of decision Jakarta has made. If they “stay,” there will be significant new infrastructure to protect themselves against sea level rise, and spending to protect (or in some cases “move”) existing infrastructure. And as seas continue to rise, the decision points and spending needs will keep recurring. If they “move,” then like “new Jakarta,” there will be massive spending for infrastructure in their new location. Some cities may, of course, do nothing. In which case, future refugee movements may well dwarf those which are already stirring politics in so many countries.