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Fighting haze: What consumers, firms can do

600-haze-hills

13 Jun Fighting haze: What consumers, firms can do

Recent warnings of a potential three-month prolonged haze crisis comparable to the severe episodes in 1997 and last year are worrying.

Earlier in the year, large numbers of hot spots were already noted in Sumatra. There is also a high possibility of the region entering into an extreme dry season from July to October, with very little rainfall expected, due to the El Nino effect. This increases the risks of runaway fires.

The haze is becoming a thorny issue for the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) and major companies that operate in land-based industries such as the palm oil, pulp and paper and rubber sectors.

Hot spots have typically been linked to their activities.

THE DYNAMICS IN ASEAN

In ASEAN, attention towards transboundary haze pollution has been institutionalised through the annual meeting among environment ministers. Occasionally, discussion on the haze has also involved foreign ministers and leaders of ASEAN states. Such engagement led to the launch of the ASEAN haze monitoring system (HMS) during the ASEAN Summit last November.

The initial excitement over the possibility of concession maps being shared openly between governments has given way to disappointment.

The HMS developed by Singapore is meant to collate information such as satellite imagery, hot spot coordinates and concession ownership.

This will allow governments to quickly identify which companies might be responsible for the fires that cause the regional haze.

This online system, paired with on-the-ground monitoring by non-governmental organisations and companies, aims to form a rapid response system where parties involved can be alerted to take immediate remedies for ground fires before they spin out of control.

Publicly, Indonesia and Malaysia governments have stated that they are unable to share the information on the maps due to legal constraints. Without the concession maps, the HMS cannot function as intended. Errant companies can continue to operate irresponsibly.

Another issue is the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Agreement, which Indonesia has yet to ratify. Over the years, Jakarta has expressed its intention to do so and recent comments by the Indonesian Foreign Minister and Environment Minister had revived hopes of ratification, although no specific timeline has been spelt out. In March, parties representing nearly 65 per cent of Indonesian lawmakers had agreed to ratify the treaty.

However, the desired outcome of such a ratification will not be realised unless there is sufficient ground-up support for better management of the agro-forestry resource sector, one that is driven by the fast-expanding palm oil sector.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Since 1997, palm oil plantations in the region have more than doubled in size. This growth momentum is likely to continue to 2020, on the back of growing demand for edible oil and the use of palm oil as biofuel within Indonesia. Power plants in Indonesia are starting to buy palm oil to generate electricity.

Industry stakeholders have attempted to encourage the sustainable development of the palm oil sector through the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil that was set up in 2004. However, to date only 16 per cent of the total volume of traded palm oil is certified to be sustainable.

It is critical for such standards to have a certain degree of harmonisation and, most importantly, for certification to be cost-effective and easily understood by the palm oil growers, such that more will want their production to be certified, and see a business advantage in doing so.

At the first Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs recently, industry leaders including Olam, Unilever, Wilmar, Sime Darby and Cargill gathered to share their vision and commitments towards sustainability.

The dialogue created a healthy exchange of ideas and experiences of how companies who have taken the lead in their own fields are working to become more sustainable.

Apart from the successes, challenges faced were also candidly shared. Such communication is likely to remain vital in the search for a long-term solution.

Singapore is in the process of finalising its Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill to penalise those responsible for the forest fires and the haze. It also convened the first International Advisory Panel meeting of legal experts to advise Singapore on options to deal with the haze.

However, finding a long-term solution to the haze cannot be the work of a single country or party. It requires companies and individual growers to cherish the environment and to not resort to fires to clear lands while working towards sustainable and pro-environment practices. It would also require them to consider putting in place good fire management practices.

There must also be ways for consumers to recognise companies that are employing good practices and for these firms to be rewarded. Unless consumers start making the right choice to buy sustainably sourced agro-forestry products, the haze is likely to be here to stay.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Nicholas Fang is Executive Director and Chua Chin Wei a deputy director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Highlights of the first Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources were screened on Channel NewsAsia on 3 and 4 June 2014. This article was published on June 3 in TODAY.