The warning signs are visible on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. It’s the heart of the dry season, and drought — accentuated by a moderate El Niño — is sparking fears of a repeat of 2015, when the climate pattern that leads to above-normal sea-level temperatures contributed to devastating fires. The blazes charred 2.5 million hectares of land, emitted more daily carbon dioxide than the entire U.S. economy and left millions sick from a haze that spread across Southeast Asia.
But this year there’s something different — something that Indonesia is counting on and that the world will closely watch. Since 2015, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has implemented policies aimed at addressing root causes of fires, such as deforestation and poor management of peatlands. This includes creating a peatland restoration agency, fining companies and individuals responsible for fires, extending a deforestation moratorium and strengthening local enforcement and firefighting capabilities.
There’s early evidence that these steps are making a difference. The number of hot spots — areas with significantly higher temperatures than neighboring areas — is decreasing dramatically. There were 2,400 hot spots detected in the first nine months of 2017 in Indonesia, a 32 percent decline from the same period in 2016, according to sightings made by satellites of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And in the first six months of 2019, only 508 hot spots were detected, a 25 percent decline from the 685 sighted over that period in 2018.