Making ASEAN haze-free by 2020

Today Online 22 Dec 15;

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environment Ministers Meeting in October, the 10 member nations agreed to develop a roadmap towards a haze-free ASEAN by 2020. Each country is supposed to come up with its National Plan of Action.

Since then, Indonesia, where forest fires caused parts of the region to be shrouded in toxic haze this year, has made some important commitments. These include the review of a much-criticised law that still allows farmers to burn up to 2ha of land and the banning of all development on peatland, which is wetland made up of decayed vegetation and organic matter.

Peatlands are vital carbon sinks, and it is also heartening that Jakarta has pledged to start a new peatland restoration agency as well as to mandate green financing by banks by 2018.

Nevertheless, some questions remain. First, who will foot the bill? Around S$5.1 billion will be needed for the restoration of 2 million ha of peatlands. Indonesia has said that it would seek international funding, including at the recent Paris climate change summit. But it is unclear how much support Indonesia can garner from international partners.

Second, will companies causing the peatland degradation take responsibility for restoration projects?

Third, how will Indonesia ensure the enforcement of its laws?

Indonesia does not have a good track record of keeping its conservation areas free from fire. In fact, 30 per cent of fire hotspots detected this year occurred in conservation areas.

The new peatland restoration agency controlled directly by Indonesian President Joko Widodo offers hope for effective law enforcement and project execution. However, a coordinated effort among various stakeholders is still needed for issues like financial contributions, monitoring and surveillance systems, landscape planning, and actual work on the ground.

This is supposed to be the role of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control, led by Indonesia. Unfortunately, it has not yet begun operations even though ASEAN agreed to its formation in 2013.

WHAT SINGAPORE CAN DO

Many of the palm oil and pulp plantations in Indonesia have links to Singapore, whether through ownership, investment or trade. If Singapore investors and companies can ensure a haze-free supply chain, the impact can be tremendous.

What will it take for this to happen? It requires various stakeholders in Singapore, including ordinary people, to play their part.

This year, Singapore has taken baby steps toward this goal. In the public sector, the government has pledged to implement green procurement. In the private sector, the Association of Banks in Singapore has issued guidelines for responsible financing. Major supermarkets have pulled products from Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) which is potentially linked to the haze, after the Singapore Environment Council suspended the issuing of the Singapore Green Label for APP’s products.

Non-government groups World Wild Fund for Nature, People’s Movement to Stop Haze and Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) also launched the “We Breathe What We Buy” campaign to promote sustainable palm oil.

These isolated efforts, however, are insufficient. There needs to be better coordination among stakeholders in Singapore. For example, groups campaigning to raise consumer awareness of companies linked to forest fires need to work more closely with those in charge of the Green Labelling scheme to create greater understanding of the definition of haze-free products. This will help consumers make better-informed choices.

Similar coordination is needed between finance sector and non-government groups, to turn generic guidelines into implementable haze-free policies, in order to prevent loans to potentially haze-causing companies and activities. A “haze-free” supply chain requires clear commitments on fire prevention and suppression from plantation and trader companies, as well as a robust mechanism to evaluate the effectiveness of these commitments.

Companies should pledge to conserve peat swamp, to restore degraded peatlands, and to work with the local community on other fire-prevention measures, as well as a fire detection-and-suppression system.

This should be tracked on a common platform. SIIA has launched an online mapping platform to track the fires in Indonesia’s concessions. These Singapore-registered firms should share their maps and ground projects on SIIA’s online platform, Haze Tracker.

At the end of the day, to achieve a haze-free ASEAN by 2020, the region will need coordinated action plans with strict deadlines.

This means all fire-prevention measures have to be properly implemented on the ground by 2019. This will require strong enforcement of regulations region-wide latest by 2018, covering not only what happens on the ground in Indonesia but also companies linked to the supply chain.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Chris Cheng is director of research at People’s Movement to Stop Haze.

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