Three years without haze, but Singapore should not celebrate just yet

ANG PENG HWA Today Online 20 Jul 18;

It has been good news regarding the haze for the third year since 2015. In the past two years, there has been little need to use the air purifier.

This year promises to be as haze-free as the previous years—the promise having come from Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro, the Indonesian Minister for National Development in his speech at the 5th Global Dialogue on World Resources here in May.

So what brought about this positive climate change?

First, boycott and the threat of boycott.

In 2015, the European Union threatened to boycott palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia, reflecting how the governments of developed countries are much more attuned to environmental concerns because their citizens are.

At various points in 2015, various parties in the EU had also talked of boycotts of Indonesian paper, palm oil and in the extreme, any product from Indonesia.

These threats certainly got the attention of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments.

One company that was the subject of the high-profile boycott in 2015 was Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

Its paper products were pulled off all the supermarkets in Singapore at the urging of the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) and the Singapore Environmental Council.

That story made a global splash.

Second, the Singapore Government’s procurement policy requirement for environmental certification.

The Singapore Government could not call for a boycott that Case could.

But it could achieve a similar result by requiring that all Government departments procure paper only from companies with green certification, which APP did not have.

Government-linked entities that follow the procurement policy also adopted the new guideline.

Third, some credit must go to the Indonesian government, especially at the federal level.

It has shown itself serious about fighting the haze.

In 2015, President Joko Widodo along with several ministers visited Riau and other parts of Indonesia.

In early 2016, President Jokowi promulgated rules that accelerated efforts in the One Map Initiative.

The lack of clear maps was a comfort to offending companies as it gave them cover to blame others for the fires that caused the haze.

Indonesian courts and legislators have also been more serious about enforcement.

The Riau Chief of Police was summoned to the Indonesian House of Representatives and replaced in 2016 after closing investigations of companies alleged to have set fires during the 2015 haze.

Last year, PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (Rapp), a major supplier of Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April), was barred from resuming operations in part of the peatland it owned.

This was a refreshing break from the past when large companies very often got their way.

Fourth, the Asian Games will be held in both Palembang and Jakarta from August 18 to September 2.

Many people speculate that this is the most important reason for the clear skies over South Sumatra.

It does show though that the haze can be “regulated” if there is political will.

It also suggests that like the fires that burn in the peat soil underground, there were actions taken behind the scenes during the past few years when there was no haze.

Sources say that the major palm oil and paper plantations have been told by a major international investor to work out compliance issues to eliminate the fires that cause the haze.

The attention to the haze has raised awareness that air quality has a major impact on one’s life quality.

For the younger set, poor air quality reduces oxygen levels, which impacts development.

For older folks, the small smoke particles that enter the lungs may be impossible to remove. We would be wise to continue to take measures that can help reduce if not eliminate the haze.

And as the past few years has shown, every one of us can. Consumer action can have some results.

We can each take care to read labels to ensure that the products we buy are sustainably sourced.

Yes, it is possible to buy cheaper products but it makes no sense to do so when in reality the products are cheaper only because they cost you your life.

It is indeed cheaper to clear land through burning— a can of petrol and a match coupled with nature can clear land that would take several days by hand.

Buying only green-labelled products is one way that consumers can have a hold to ensure that companies are compliant.

So reading the labels is a significant part of the battle.

Looking ahead, the sustainability policies of financial institutions should be a key focus of efforts to combat haze.

The aim is to choke off the money that companies need to finance their growth.

Financial sustainability policies are available but our local banks have given themselves till 2019 to draw up a common set of policies.

Finally, the possibility of consumers and those affected by forest fires suing errant companies should not be dismissed.

It is a weapon in the arsenal that we cannot overlook in battling haze.

Should the haze return in a significant way, the Haze Elimination Action Team volunteer group will be putting out statements on the data that consumers and potential plaintiffs should take note of in preparation for filing such suits.

Defeating the haze requires battling on many fronts because its origin is multi-faceted. So if we can breathe easier this year, it does not mean we may be as fortunate the next. This calls for us to be ready to act when needed.

We all can make a difference in fighting the haze.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ang Peng Hwa, a communications professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, is a co-founder of the Haze Elimination Action Team volunteer group. This is adapted from a piece which first appeared on the group’s Facebook page.

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