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Low (Green) risk of severe transboundary haze in 2021

30 Jun Low (Green) risk of severe transboundary haze in 2021

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) has released its annual Haze Outlook 2021 Report, providing a risk assessment of the probability of a severe transboundary haze episode affecting Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore this year. An online launch event was held on 24 June 2021 with Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the SIIA, and Mr. Aaron Choo, Senior Assistant Director (Special Projects and Sustainability), presenting the findings. Dr. Herry Purnomo, Scientist, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Professor, IPB University also spoke at the webinar to provide comments on the report. Ms. Khor Yu Leng, SIIA Associate Fellow (Sustainability) and a co-author of the Haze Outlook 2021 also joined the panel for an interactive question and answer session with participants.

The report is available for download on the SIIA website.

The SIIA predicts there is a low risk of a severe transboundary haze incident – rated Green on a scale of Green, Amber, and Red. The risk assessment is based on three core factors: weather (temperature and rainfall conditions), peat (policies and actions related to peat and land management, particularly in Indonesia), and people (human action, including fire prevention and firefighting efforts).

This is the first time that the Haze Outlook has been Green, since it was introduced in 2019.

Strong political will from the Indonesian government a key element

Weather is less of a concern for severe transboundary haze risk in 2021. The early months of 2021 have seen wetter-than-average weather due to the La Niña effect. Going into the June to September dry season, the weather is expected to be normal, with no elevated risk of fires and haze from unusual drought conditions.

The risk of haze in 2021 depends more on policy and human factors. The Indonesian government has shown strong political will to prevent deforestation and unsustainable practices despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which is stretching government budgets and resources. For example, although several government agencies were consolidated amidst COVID-19, the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) has had its operating mandate extended to include mangroves. Renamed as the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM), its responsibilities include the rehabilitation of 600,000 hectares of mangroves. Coupled with effective forest governance laws and a National Action Plan on Sustainable Palm Oil, these policies suggest that the pursuit of economic recovery in the aftermath of COVID-19 and environmental goals can be achieved simultaneously.

Indonesia has also recently announced that it is aiming to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, by 2070 at the latest, although it can potentially do so by as early as 2045 or 2050 under more ambitious scenarios outlined by the Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS). With the agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors making up over half of Indonesia’s annual emissions, sustainable land management and fire prevention will be key to achieving these climate ambitions. In its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, Indonesia has pledged to limit deforestation to approximately 3.25 million hectares from 2020 to 2030, which translates to around 325,000 hectares or less annually.

Will post-pandemic economic recovery policies upend all this?

With the economic downturn caused by the pandemic still weighing on growth prospects in Indonesia, the government is now faced with the challenge of balancing the demands of recovery with the need to protect the environment.

In October 2020, Indonesia passed the Job Creation Law (or Omnibus Law), a sweeping piece of legislation that lays the groundwork to improve ease of doing business in the country, by cutting through the layers of bureaucracy that govern companies. But NGOs and activists have warned that easing restrictions on businesses could mean changes to environmental regulations as well. The government is also in the process of creating food estates, or government-backed farms, to improve food security, but NGOs have expressed concern that estates established in forest and peat areas could damage natural ecosystems.

Dr. Purnomo highlighted during the panel discussions that NGOs and other watchdog organisations in Indonesia play an important role, especially in light of these developments. There need to be rigorous and sufficient checks and balances in place to ensure that private sector companies and policymakers are accountable for their actions.

Synergies in Indonesia and Singapore’s Carbon Market Ambitions

There may be new and emerging ways to incentivise forest conservation. Indonesia is creating a national framework for carbon emissions trading, while Singapore has expressed interest to become a hub for a regional carbon market. Instead of a clash in ambitions, a harmonious collaboration between Indonesia and Singapore could be useful in building a state-of-the-art carbon market in the ASEAN region.

To achieve this, Indonesia should oversee on the ground measures to reach out to small scale farmers and consolidate carbon credits. Dr. Purnomo noted that small-scale farmers will benefit from a carbon market, but will require support in this transition and facilitation in the go-to-market phase.

Associate Professor Tay added that Singapore can tap on its capacity and credibility as a world-class financial hub to introduce price-discovery mechanisms for carbon and the aggregation of carbon credits. Singapore can also build a trusted verification system to attract more regional and international buyers for credits generated in Indonesia and other ASEAN countries.

The Path Forward

In 2020, the Haze Outlook Report gave an “Amber” prediction regarding the risk of haze that year as there was a great deal of ambiguity surrounding COVID-19. At the time, it was unclear how the restrictions brought about by the pandemic would impact fire and haze prevention efforts. Fortunately, the region experienced a milder-than-usual dry season in 2020, and despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19, both government agencies and the private sector were able to keep the situation under control thanks to strong political will.

However, fire and haze prevention initiatives will continue to be tested in the months ahead, as we approach the dry season and with the pandemic still looming. The greater challenge, but also opportunity, will come in balancing recovery with environmental protection. Hopefully, the low (Green) risk of transboundary haze in 2021 will become reality when the dry season arrives, and the region’s renewed focus on green recovery will be the harbinger of a haze-free future.