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Effective remedies to the Southeast Asia Transboundary Haze: What’s burning?

It’s the time of the year again when we start stocking up on N95 masks. Yes – the haze is back. Southeast Asia is no stranger to the haze particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Transboundary haze has been a serious problem since the 1970s. Other than forest and plantations, there is something else that’s burning for the past two decades – the question: Why are there no effective remedies?

The Southeast Asian Transboundary Haze is mainly caused by forest fires in Indonesia, which usually happens in October when farmers carry out their slash and burn method of cultivation. The severity of the air pollution depends on the wind direction, which carries the smoke and dust particles into neighbouring countries. The haze has persisted over the years due to a confluence of factors such as the Indonesian’s government development policies that encourage resource exploitation, the surge in global demand for pulp and palm oil, and weak forestry governance. The problem is also aggravated by the fire risks caused by poor logging practices, Indonesia’s peat lands, and droughts especially those arising from the El Nino1.

Environmental - drawbacks vs. solutions

Greenhouse gas emissions from peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra are currently exceeding emissions from the entire U.S. economy. Indonesia is on the track to being one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year. According to Guido van der Werf’s calculations, posted on the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) website — carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires just topped the CO2 equivalent of a billion tons — more than the annual emissions of Germany. Since the beginning of September, Indonesia’s fires have been emitting carbon at a rate of 15-20 million tons per day, or more than the 14 million tons emitted on a daily basis by the whole American economy.

In terms of resolutions, Indonesia has taken some steps to reduce emissions, most of which result from deforestation, peatlands degradation, and fire. However, the country’s climate commitment submitted last month for the upcoming COP21 in Paris was weaker than expected, raising concerns that it may be reverting on restructuring the forestry sector and therefore leading in emissions. Restoration of degraded peatlands and forests could sequester billions of tons of carbon, while concurrently reducing fire risk and the occurrence of haze. Additionally, it will enhance other ecosystem services such as the provision of freshwater and helping against drought and flood cycles. This solution could also help mend relations with its neighbours — Singapore and Malaysia — which are plagued by haze nearly every dry season.

Political - drawbacks vs. solutions

A Haze Technical Task Force was set up in 1995 to operationalize and implement the measures recommended in the ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution relating to atmospheric pollution — the first indication of a call for action. The 1997 Regional Haze Action Plan was to set out co-operative measures needed amongst ASEAN member countries to address the problem of smoke haze in the region arising from land and forest fires. The official procedure that informs this agreement is the ‘ASEAN Way’ set of region norms and codes of diplomatic conduct characterised by principles of non-interference, consultation, consensus, quiet diplomacy, symbolism, and organizational minimalism.

The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (THPA) building upon the past two agreements was established in 2002. ASEAN tried to depart from its institutional culture in attempt to achieve deeper co-operation on this issue. This is evident through a legally binding treaty, something ASEAN has strongly opposed in the past. 12 years after it was first signed in 2002, Indonesia, the primary haze producing party was the last ASEAN country to finally ratify the agreement in 2014. With all ASEAN members ratifying the agreement, legal action can now be taken for a tougher stance toward the perpetuators. It is still early to put the perpetuators to justice and eradicate the fires and haze given the recent ratification.

Business - drawbacks vs. solutions

The first symptom of how gravely Indonesia’s land management practices have impacted ecosystems came during the severe El Nino in 1982-1983. Millions of hectares in Sumatra and Kalimantan went up in smoke.

Instead of reacting to the wakeup call, it sparked a rapid scale-up of the burning practices that triggered the problem in the first place. No one paid much attention to these activities until the massive 1997-1998 fires – which burned more than 8 million hectares. This caused billions of dollars in financial losses; put hundreds of thousands of people in hospitals with respiratory ailments, and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, historically high commodity prices – especially palm oil – drove a steady interest in plantation development. Fires and haze became part of the cost of doing business. In 2013, when unfortunate winds drove more haze than usual over Singapore, the issue again surface in international headlines.

In 2015, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has instructed government agencies to revoke the permits of any palm oil companies involved in the burning of forests and urged the arrest of those responsible. Singapore’s National Environment Agency began legal action under the THPA against Singapore-listed Asia Pulp and Paper Group (APP) and four other Indonesian firms that were purportedly behind the burning. It appears that ASEAN is working quite closely to solve this crisis but given the size of this state emergency, it would take some time before the perpetuators are caught and implement the remedies to prevent haze in the coming years.

In a nutshell, there are effective remedies that work for other regions and organisations such as The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) in Europe – a good example of how a transboundary environmental problem was successfully tackled. The convention shines as a prime example of what can be achieved through strong inter-governmental cooperation – a final call to look into mending and building on ASEAN’s regional cooperation to minimize the cost and harm.

Written by: Clarrie Si Qian Ng

Clarrie Si Qian Ng is pursuing her Master's degree in Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in deciphering the use of social media in political communication

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