Climate change talks - The little red dot’s big role

ALBERT WAI Today Online 19 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE — It was breakfast time at 7am but for the Singaporean negotiators participating in the Paris climate talks last week, their day was just coming to an end after yet another overnight session of hard bargaining among more than 190 countries on acceptable language for a global climate framework.

Team Singapore — led by Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan and consisting of several dozen senior and mid-level officials from across the civil service — would rest for a couple of hours before the next round of talks resumed.

For most of the officials, the two-week summit in Paris was the culmination of several years of calculated negotiations in different corners of the globe. By now, they knew the importance of having tenacity, stamina and finesse in seeking common ground with so many different nations for an unprecedented accord. On this home stretch, there was to be no giving up.

Negotiations on different articles in the agreement sometimes took place concurrently, and this meant the Singapore team had to stay alert and coordinated at all times.

The negotiators had also developed strategies to cope with the marathon talks, like ensuring they packed enough food — sandwiches, fruits and energy bars are the favourites for practical reasons — as moving from one meeting to another, there is often little time to sit down for a proper meal.

“Towards the end, we were sleeping only three to four hours a day. Especially 
during the informal negotiation sessions which ran overnight and ended at 6 am,” said Mr Terence Tan, a Desk Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Climate Change Office.

There were a few occasions when the food outlets in the conference venue did not serve dinner, he said.

“Colleagues helped to ‘da bao’ (packet) food from outside. We dubbed it ‘Operation Food Security’,” he added.

“We then surreptitiously brought it into the marathon negotiations even though it was prohibited. (It was) either that or (we) go hungry.”

The talks finally concluded last Saturday, or Sunday morning Singapore time. As cheers and applause rang out across the hall when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius banged a small green gavel on the table to announce the historic climate deal, members of Team Singapore duly posed for selfies to celebrate the end of one chapter in a long journey.

Asked how he felt when the deal was finalised, Mr Tan replied: “A real mix of emotions. Ecstatic, relieved, a sense of disbelief, fortunate.”

“Just moments before, Parties were still bickering and things seemed to be on the brink. Suddenly, when the gavel went down and the deal was struck, we witnessed history… It was surreal,” he added.

Having played the role of a honest broker in helping to arrive at a global climate deal that will replace the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2020, Singapore will now have to turn its attention towards concrete actions to deliver its pledge of cutting Emissions Intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around the same time.


The Paris deal came together following several years of hard work after the Copenhagen climate talks failed in December 2009, primarily over a lack of trust between countries.

Subsequent talks in Cancun, Durban, Doha, Warsaw and Lima focussed on trust building and growing the emerging areas of convergences.

France, as president of COP21 (21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC) this year, started preparing early by engaging Peru and engineering a seamless transition for decisions taken in Lima to Paris. Top French negotiators also criss-crossed the globe to better understand the concerns of the various negotiating blocs.

As negotiations kicked off late last month, the divisive issues of differentiation (how countries are divided in the UNFCCC as Annex One developed countries and Non-Annex One developing countries, with the former expected to take on greater responsibilities) as well as whether to aim to stop global temperatures rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels or push for a more ambitious 1.5°C target had yet to be resolved. The modalities through which developed countries will fund the actions taken by developing countries to address climate change were also not finalised.

Towards the end, Mr Fabius announced that he had set up a committee of foreign and environment ministers to carry out informal consultations around several clusters of outstanding issues.

“Overcoming mistrust by having honest brokers (ministers) in an open Indaba-type consultations was helpful in overcoming the difficult issues,” added Melissa Low, a research associate from the Energy Studies Institute (ESI) in the National University of Singapore (NUS), referring to consultations held in the African tradition of interdependence that were first introduced during the Durban Climate Change Conference in 2011. Ms Low attended the recent Paris talks as an observer, her fourth COP meeting.

Mr Fabius roped in Dr Balakrishnan to helm informal consultations among the ministers on differentiation, a topic seen as a potential deal-breaker . The Republic’s Chief Negotiator for Climate Change Kwok Fook Seng had also coordinated issues related to transparency of action and support in the draft agreement.

That Singapore – whose greenhouse gas emissions account for only 0.11 per cent of the world’s - was entrusted with such heavy responsibilities underscored its outsized role in the talks.

“Singapore has a history of depositing confidence in the people we work with – our objectivity and neutrality in getting parties together when it needs substantive work,” said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, who spoke to reporters after delivered Singapore’s national statement in Paris.

It was clear that the French host and other countries saw Singapore as an honest broker. Mr Wilson Ang, Founder of non-profit Environmental Challenge Organisation (ECO Singapore) – who has attended eight COP meetings including last week’s conference as an observer – noted that “the role of a facilitator could only be played by countries that are well respected, perceived neutral, credible and have strong diplomacy skills”.

“Trust is a precious element vital to the success of any negotiation,” said Mr Guo Weimin, an Assistant Director in MFA’s Climate Change Office.

“Perhaps because Singapore is seen as small and non-threatening; that we engaged all parties and tried to understand their concerns, parties trusted Singapore enough to have Minister Vivian and Ambassador Fook Seng facilitate negotiations on the crucial and very difficult issues of differentiation and transparency,” said Mr Guo, who added he was “honoured and humbled” to be a member of Team Singapore.

The final Paris accord was regarded by the negotiating countries to have struck a balance between competing interests, committing both rich and poor nations to reining in rising emissions blamed for warming the planet as it sets out a sweeping, long-term goal of eliminating net manmade greenhouse gas output this century.

“The Paris Agreement is a triumph for people, the environment, and for multilateralism. It is a health insurance policy for the planet. For the first time, every country in the world has pledged to curb their emissions, strengthen resilience and act internationally and domestically to address climate change,” United Nations Ban Ki Moon wrote this week.


The deal which hopefully puts the world on a low carbon pathway is a universal agreement that is applicable to all parties of the UNFCCC. Consensus was reached to keep global temperatures from rising “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial levels, with a stretch target of limiting it to 1.5°C.

Studies have indicated that based on the more than 180 post-2020 pledges submitted by governments (also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – INDCs) so far, efforts are still insufficient to meet the 2°C goal.

But there are mechanisms built into the new agreement for countries to increase ambition over time. There will be a facilitative dialogue every five years, starting in 2023, to take stock of the collective effort of all countries.

Countries are required to regularly update their commitments, with each pledge being more ambitious than the last. A monitoring, reporting and verification system will ensure transparency of action and support, to make sure that all countries are delivering on their promises.

In the finalised agreement (to be ratified by at least 55 countries covering at least 55 per cent of global emissions before it comes into force), developed countries will continue to mobilise US$100 billion (S$) annually through 2025 to help developing countries cope with climate change. Subsequently, countries will decide on a new quantified goal for climate financing from a floor of US$100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries.

Overall, the agreement that was adopted is likely to have met Singapore’s expectations. Before leaving for Paris, Dr Balakrishnan told reporters that the focus should be on securing an agreement applicable to all parties, adding that after the agreement has been finalised, monitoring, reporting and verification mechanisms will kick in to help the world improve its performance in addressing climate change.

After the deal was struck, Dr Balakrishnan hailed the agreement, saying that “what all Parties have achieved is a historic, global agreement which strikes the right balance between developed and developing Parties, the right balance between mitigation and adaptation, and the right balance between means of implementation and ambition.”

While scientists are somewhat sceptical over the effectiveness of the agreement in dealing with climate change, they are also cognisant that this is only the beginning of a concerted global effort to move towards a low carbon future.

Ms Goh Tian, an associate research fellow from the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies in S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies RSIS) said it is not clear if the Paris accord will be sufficient for addressing climate change, especially since all the INDCs taken together would still lead to a global temperature increase of 2.7°C according to the Climate Action Tracker.

“Although parties have agreed on a target temperature increase of well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the link between the total global emissions and this temperature target is not clear in the agreement,” said Ms Goh who is a former climate negotiator. How the emission targets pledged by countries will be evaluated during the five-year regular review is also not clear, she added.

Assistant Professor Winston Chow of the NUS Department of Geography noted that the Paris accord merely points the way towards addressing the worsening impacts from climate change that would ensue if left unchecked.”

“However, politically and diplomatically, it is a great achievement and honestly the final accord is very encouraging after the calamity in Copenhagen six years ago,” he added.


Singapore’s post-2020 pledge is to reduce Emissions Intensity (amount of greenhouse gas emitted per dollar of gross domestic product) by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around the same time. To do this would require adjustments, especially in terms of energy efficiency across industries and households.

Ms Low of ESI noted that the Republic had already pledged in 2009 to reduce emissions by 16 per cent below business-as-usual levels (BAU-16 per cent) by 2020 if there is a legally binding global agreement. With a legally binding deal struck in Paris, Singapore will now aim to fulfil that commitment by 2020.

In the meantime, Singapore has already taken various actions to reduce its emissions to achieve its unconditional pledge (also announced in 2009) of BAU-7 to 11 per cent by 2020. These include progressively switching from fuel oil to natural gas, the cleanest form of fossil fuel, for power generation.

The clock is already ticking.

“Singapore will have to ramp up efforts if we are to achieve our 2030 (emissions intensity) target and to peak emissions around 2030 including introducing new and more efficient technologies to reduce energy consumption,” said Ms Low.

To do so, she added, the government may need to review existing legislation such as the Energy Conservation Act of 2013.

The Energy Conservation Act aims to help Singapore achieve the target of a 35 per cent improvement in energy intensity by 2030 from 2005 levels. Under the Act, companies that are large energy users are required to appoint energy managers to monitor and manage their energy consumption. These companies need to report their energy consumption and provide information on processes resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. They are also required to submit energy-efficiency improvement plans annually.

The law can be revised “to incorporate more companies, enhance their reporting requirements or require them to fulfill their energy-efficiency improvement plans that they submit to the National Environment Agency (NEA),” said Ms Low.

Companies here are already getting in the act, while others say they will step up efforts to do their bit in reducing global warming.

“Businesses have an important role to play in tackling the challenges of climate change,” said Mr Loh Chin Hua, CEO of Keppel Corporation.

He added that the Paris accord will provide an impetus to corporations to take action on climate change, adding that Keppel “is fully committed to conducting our business in an environmentally-benign manner”

For instance, the Group has adopted energy-efficient technologies to achieve energy saving and several of its infrastructure assets are harnessing renewable energy.

Sembcorp Industries Group President and CEO Tang Kin Fei noted that “the quest for more energy efficiency presents both costs and opportunities for companies.”

“While companies would need to invest in better technologies, maintenance and asset management, improving energy efficiency would make them more competitive in the short term by reducing their cost, and more sustainable in the long term by reducing their environmental impact,” he told TODAY.

Mr Tang said that the government can play a role in helping to lead the way via incentivising consumer behaviour towards energy efficiency across all sectors of the economy, implementing highest efficiency measures in government buildings, and supporting new technology development and adoption on a commercial scale.

At the personal level, Mr Ang of ECO Singapore said that individuals will need to adjust their behaviour and take on a more active role in protecting the environment.

“There is already a growing trend of interest among members of civil society and businesses, especially the younger generation, to take action in protecting the environment. Compared to Copenhagen, whereby the outcome brought doubt on what’s next, the Paris Agreement is a beacon of hope with stronger governmental commitments to solve the climate challenge,” he said.


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Youth delegation hopes for more green activism here

VALERIE KOH Today Online 18 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE — It was an hour before the 6pm deadline on Dec 3, and still nobody had volunteered to speak on behalf of YOUNGO — the official youth constituency at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — during the high-level segment of the talks in Paris.

Deciding to take the plunge, Miss Nor Lastrina Hamid of the Singapore Youth for Climate Action (SYCA) signed up for the role. Her hard-hitting speech urging nations to take action to fight climate change, delivered in the French capital on Dec 8, has since gone viral.

The 26-year-old told TODAY that one of the requirements was that the speaker had to be from a vulnerable country in the global South, and few in the youth constituency fitted the bill.

“So, given the two situations above — last minute still no representatives (and the) ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) representation was small, I decided to give it a go,” said Miss Lastrina, a project manager at Stratcon, a project management company in the construction industry focusing on renewable energy.

Drafting the two-and-a-half minute speech was a team effort, with input from other youths. “Singaporeans can be quite safe and neutral, but you have kids from Brazil who can be quite passionate and strong in their words. In that three to four days drafting it with them, it was a bit of a learning point for me ... to learn the art of compromising,” she recounted.

Brainstorming started on Dec 4, and the speech was completed on the evening of Dec 7.

In her speech, Miss Lastrina labelled the ongoing climate talks as becoming “more and more exclusive”. Pushing for an agreement which keeps temperature increase below 1.5°C, she called upon developed countries to take the lead “based on their historical responsibility and their respective capabilities”.

A legally binding agreement — which acknowledged the need for strong adaptation measures, a bold mechanism to help developing nations cope with loss and damage from disasters, technology transfer, capacity building and finance flowing — was crucial to help vulnerable communities, Miss Lastrina said.

On social media, reception to her speech was mixed. Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, for instance, applauded the “sincere and passionate” plea, but at the same time, described it as idealistic.

“Alas, the world does not work that way ... She will learn that the fervency of the wish to change the world, does not change the world. To do so you have to work by, and thereby subvert, the world’s rules,” he wrote on Facebook.

Of the reactions, Miss Lastrina said: “When I was writing it, it didn’t feel idealistic, to be honest. We felt like this was the most real voice we could give.”

Off-stage, the response was highly positive. China’s former Vice-Minister of Education Zhang Xinsheng “seemed impressed”, and delegates from Malaysia and Indonesia also offered her their congratulations, she said.

Asked for her thoughts on the Paris Agreement inked on Dec 12, Miss Lastrina zeroed in on the commitment from developed countries to channel US$100 billion (S$141.2 billion) a year in climate aid for developing countries by 2020. “The fund looks good ... but in reality, how are they going to make sure that the funds are raised and (used appropriately)?” she said.

The agreement included a pact to keep global temperature rise well below 2°C in this century, and to drive efforts to limit the rise even further to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Although the agreement has been hailed by many as a breakthrough in efforts to save mankind from global warming, Miss Melissa Chong, who was also at the talks as an SYCA representative, said she remained “a little hesitant to call this a great success”. “There’s still a lot more that needs to be done to achieve our 1.5°C target. Countries and governments really need to make drastic changes to their policies of renewable energy,” she said.

However, she was “more optimistic” about the power of civil society in the push for change. Miss Chong, 25, noted that during the talks in Paris, “civil society was doing everything they can to make sure 1.5°C was included in the text”.

Her team-mate Juliana Chia, 24, pointed out that some aspects of the agreement — such as the emission targets for each country — were legally non-binding. “This needs to be improved upon ... Countries can easily put economic growth ahead of environmental protection,” she said.

The Paris talks may be over but Miss Lastrina said there is still a need for youths in Singapore to remain interested in green issues. “In Singapore’s case, we import 90 per cent of our food. Rising temperatures will affect food supplies in neighbouring countries; it’s also going to affect our water supply. Climate change affects every aspect of our life,” she added.

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Renewable energy firms see spike in demand

VALERIE KOH Today Online 19 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE — Over the past year, firms in the sustainable energy business have been seeing growing interest from home owners and corporates looking to go green.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) matchmaking firm SolarPVExchange told TODAY it has seen enquiries increasing up to two-fold, with some three to five business queries and five to 10 residential queries each week. “Everyone is now putting solar energy as a top priority. Previously, it was further down on the priority list. These days, we get people asking for quotations and cheaper prices,” said managing director Rob Khoo, whose company connects potential solar PV buyers with vendors.

Agreeing, Mr Frank Phuan, director of sustainable energy firm Sunseap, said customers used to turn to renewables whenever oil and gas prices soared, citing cost savings. These days, their mindsets have changed. “Lots of companies call us today because they realise they have a choice, and they want to make an impact,” he said, adding that enquiries have spiked by two to three times in a year.

Both of them expect business to grow further, as Singapore strives to reduce its emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, as pledged in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). But they felt that Government incentives are a must, as the Republic moves towards this “aggressive” target. Noting the pragmatism of Singaporeans, Mr Khoo suggested offering tax rebates to businesses that have adopted sustainable energy sources. “People don’t want to make the change (to renewable energy) because they’re afraid of the cost,” said Mr Phuan. “But it’s a matter of perspective. Singaporeans tend to think more short term.”

He pointed out that sustainable energy sources are more economical in the long haul. “Solar energy doesn’t require fuels to burn. The cost is locked in from day one,” he said.

Besides baiting consumers with tax incentives, policy changes can also be instilled to promote sustainability, said Mr Phuan. Currently, the Energy Market Authority requires commercial or industrial consumers with an average monthly electricity consumption of less than 2,000 kWh to buy electricity from SP Services. Only consumers with a larger consumption are eligible to buy from other electricity retailers or from the wholesale electricity market. This, Mr Phuan suggested, could be removed to allow Small and Medium Enterprises with low electricity usage to tap on other sources of renewable energy.

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Biologist on a mission to save earth's flora: Professor Li Chia-wei

Carolyn Khew, Straits Times AsiaOne 19 Dec 15;

If Noah - he of the Ark and the animals two by two - had a modern-day twin, it would be Professor Li Chia-wei.

The Taiwanese biologist, 62, is on a life's mission to collect as many living plant specimens as he possibly can so the earth may have a chance to recover the species it loses.

Prof Li, whose love for plants started at a young age, set up the Dr Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Centre in Pingtung County, southern Taiwan, in 2007.

There, he and his team of more than 20 collection managers and technicians scout for plants from all over the world - from as far as South America and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific - which they then propagate. Some are also cultivated into hybrids in greenhouses.

Today, the centre boasts the largest living collection of plants in the world, with more than 27,000 species of begonias, ferns and orchids, among others.

Not only does it provide a physical repository of plants, but its propagation efforts, if successful, could also help reintroduce plants back into the wild, he said.

"When you study fossils from the past (during the prehistoric era), less than one per million species would go extinct every year.

But today, 100 to 1,000 species per million species would go extinct annually," said Prof Li, whose background is in fossils and evolutionary biology.

"Conservation efforts should be taken at as large a scale as possible, as this ecosystem is unable to stay healthy at the rate it is going.

The disappearance of every species is like losing one part of the car running on the freeway.

You don't know exactly when the car will crash, so it's dangerous."

Previously museum director at the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan, he is also currently a Distinguished Professor at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at National Tsing Hua University.

Prof Li was recently here on a visit hosted by the National University of Singapore science faculty's School of Biological Sciences and delivered various lectures on topics such as conservation and human evolution.

Speaking to The Straits Times during his month-long stay here, Prof Li said while his centre initially focused on collecting critically endangered plants, he realised later they were not the only ones in peril.

"There were plants that were so popular at one point, but you later discover as soon as months later that they have been completely removed or had their habitats destroyed... So based on our encounter, we will grow any plant we can collect," said Prof Li.

He cited the example of a camellia species, Pyrenaria buisanensis, common in southern Taiwan when it was named in 1931 but which soon became difficult to find and considered extinct in the wild for nearly half a century until two individual plants were sighted again in 2004.

The seeds were then collected and propagated by the centre, which now has more than 100 individual plants that will in the future be reintroduced into the wild.

Another example was the begonia baik, a flowering plant discovered in Sarawak last year, whose only known habitat was destroyed by a road construction bulldozer in July this year.

Thankfully, the centre had conserved five individual plants.

The centre's collection outstrips even that of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in England, which has 18,000 taxa, or species and cultivars; and the Missouri Botanic Gardens, in the United States, which has 17,500 taxa.

While there are plans to house more than 30,000 species of plants by next year, Prof Li said that the work to save the planet cannot be accomplished alone.

To that end, he has collaborated with countries like the Solomon Islands, and will also be working with the Singapore Botanic Gardens on various aspects.

Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Gardens, said these would encompass collaboration and exchanges spanning biodiversity education, and research, among other areas.

A memorandum of understanding to set the scope of collaboration is currently being developed.

Said Dr Taylor: "Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Dr Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Centre share a common interest in the conservation of threatened plant species in Asia. By working together, botanic gardens throughout the world can achieve more than each can alone."

Prof Li grew up in Penghu, a remote island in Taiwan.

It was when he moved to Taichung, central Taiwan when he was 12 that he began to cultivate a love for horticulture.

His father had taken him to a flower market there, and he was struck by the beauty and diversity of plants.

As he grew, his love for plants blossomed in more ways than one.

In 1976, he met the love of his life, who happened to share the same name as his favourite flower.

He met Ms Hu Tiehlan while he was studying marine biology at the National Taiwan University, and she, botany. "My wife has the same Chinese name as the popular orchid, Phalaenopsis. That attracted my attention," said Prof Li.

And as they say, the rest is history.

He married her in 1980 and the couple have two sons who are both researchers in the field of biology.

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Malaysia: Forest City set to become iconic urban area

MOHD FARHAAN SHAH The Star 19 Dec 15;

GUANZHOU: The much talked about Forest City project in Johor will be a catalyst for modern developments in the future and become an iconic urban area in the world in 20 years.

Country Garden Holdings chairman Yeung Kwok Keung said Forest City would trigger great changes on how development projects being carry out not only within developing countries but throughout the world.

He said the 1,740ha reclaimed land was design to be environmental friendly and the first such urban development in the world.

“This is a fresh idea where it will have four multi-layers development and the public would not see any vehicles on the road as Forest City would be filled with greenery on the top layer while underneath is for roads and parking bays use by vehicles.

“We also provide effective transportation system for more than 100,000 residents living there. Forest City will be a dream for the community to live and work there,” he said.

Yeung said Country Garden Holdings had been involved in property, construction, logistic, and hotels for more than 20 years and operated in 300 cities including in Malaysia. “I am confident that Forest City will become a smart urban area and an example to other projects where we are committed to make it into a reality.”

He said this in his speech during Forest City media briefing held at Country Garden headquarters here yesterday.

Meanwhile Country Garden Pacificview Sdn Bhd executive director Datuk Daing A Malek Daing A Rahaman, who was present at the event, said the project, located in Iskandar Malaysia, would offer various opportunities to foreign investors.

“Besides its location along Johor Straits, its unique designs will attract foreign investors and offer opportunities to all,” he said.

Launched in 2013, Forest City initial gross development project is RM450bil and is expected to create 220,000 job opportunities upon completion in 2035.

Forest City, build on four man-made islands near Tanjung Kupang, has already received RM170bil worth of commitment investment.

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Efforts to stop Indonesian haze fires may not work for 2016

MEGAN ROWLING Reuters 18 Dec 15;

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - South Sumatra's governor, Alex Noerdin, is adamant there will be a "significant reduction" next year in fires on deforested and peat land in his province.

Those fires have contributed to the haze crisis choking South East Asia almost annually.

But many experts believe fires in Indonesia are likely to start up again when the rainy season ends in March. They say not enough has been done yet to head off the risks.

Slash-and-burn clearance of land - much of it to plant oil palm, and trees to make pulp and paper - is the main culprit fueling the fires that smolder deep underground in peat. They have pushed up pollution levels, disrupting daily life from Indonesia to Singapore and Malaysia.

Who is responsible for starting the fires is unclear, although a finger is often pointed at small-scale growers of the palm that produces cheap, edible oil.

Mansuetus Alsy Hanu, national coordinator for Indonesia's Palm Oil Smallholder Union, said his members are often unfairly blamed, and better mapping of the land would show some fires break out on larger holdings.

Still he admitted that financial pressure on small growers pushes them towards slash-and-burn clearance.

"Using fires is the cheapest method to prepare a plantation," he told a recent discussion on the Indonesian fires on the sidelines of the Paris climate change talks. "When you have no money, you go (for) the cheapest way."

Better access to bank credit and government support for growers could help alleviate the problem, he added.

Noerdin said South Sumatra authorities had launched an investigation into the origin of the fires, and would evaluate all existing licenses for cultivation on peatlands in January.

If companies are found to have started fires, there would be sanctions, but that will have to be handled by the courts, he added.

Palm oil "is very important to our province, so we must be careful", he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Paris.

This week, the World Bank estimated the haze fires from June to October had caused Indonesia losses of 221 trillion rupiah (around $16 billion) in damage to agriculture, forestry, transport, trade and tourism, as well as short-term school closures and health impacts.

That is equivalent to 1.9 percent of predicted GDP this year, or more than twice the reconstruction cost after the 2004 tsunami that hit Aceh province.


The Indonesian government is taking steps to curb the outbreak of fires, which experts say were worsened by the El Nino weather phenomenon exacerbating dry conditions this year.

The president has called for a moratorium on draining and developing peatland, while the government is planning to restore degraded peatland and improve the way it manages fires, with a focus on prevention and early warning.

In South Sumatra, the provincial government has launched a scheme for what it calls "fire-free" villages, starting with 75 concentrated in high-risk districts.

Local people will be trained both to extinguish fires and stop them starting, partly through patrols.

They will receive incentives - including farm equipment and fertilisers - that should boost productivity and deter them from slash-and-burn, the governor said.

The province is also planning to step up efforts to manage water better on peatlands, he added.

In Paris, experts said there was a need to bring all those involved in the palm oil industry together in a joint push to end the fires.

Some of the biggest palm oil producers and traders, including Golden Agri-Resources Ltd (GAR) and Sime Darby, are expanding their efforts up to 5 kilometers beyond their plantation boundaries, providing villagers with employment opportunities and other assistance to reduce fire hotspots.

But Agus Purnomo, managing director for sustainability with GAR, questioned what would happen beyond that 5 km limit.

"That is the big elephant in the room... This is not something the company can deal with on its own," he said.

It will require collaboration between the government's planned new peatland agency, plantation companies, researchers and NGOs, he added.


Herry Purnomo, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research, said unclear land tenure and insecure concessions were at the root of the problem, alongside land politics that allow "strong, powerful people" to benefit from the burning.

His analysis shows that when land is cleared by cutting down trees, it generates profits of $665 per hectare, shared between the farmer groups who do the work, local elites who organize the groups, village heads and others.

If land is burned, the benefits rise to $856 per hectare, as it is faster, cheaper and leaves peat soil in a better condition for planting. When planted with oil palm over a three-year period, the figure rises to $3,077 per hectare.

In every scenario, it is local elites who receive at least half of the profit.

"The fires have been happening for 20 years, and I don't believe the governments are stupid, so I suspect that people are trying to influence the government not to have enough budget to stop them, because fires benefit (various) people," Purnomo said.

In Paris, Noerdin announced a "South Sumatra Eco-Region Alliance", to be overseen by the Zoological Society of London and partly funded by Britain and Norway.

It will bring in other international partners to tackle deforestation, peatland degradation, wildfires and climate change impacts in the Sembilang-Dangku peat swamp forests.

Experts are putting their hope in models like this involving co-operation between governments, businesses and local people, as a comprehensive way of tackling the haze fires. But there are doubts they can work fast enough to head off trouble in 2016.

"We've not done enough now to stop the fires for next year - that's my prediction," Simon Lord, head of sustainability for Sime Darby, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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Indonesia: Forest moratorium map updated

The Jakarta Post 18 Dec 15;

The government released on Thursday the ninth edition of its forest-clearance moratorium map, adding another 71,099 hectares.

The extra land brings the total area covered by the current moratorium to 65.08 million ha, after the ministry added concessions the permits for which had been revoked following the recent forest fires.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said the public could expect more drastic changes in the next edition of the map, which is updated every six months, following President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s instruction to stop issuing new permits for peatland cultivation for monoculture, restore damaged peatland and review all current peatland licenses.

“I expect there will be lots of changes in the next six months,” she said during the publication of the map at her office in Central Jakarta.

Greenomics executive director Vanda Mutia Dewi applauded Siti’s comment, saying that a better map, which encompassed a greater area, would be expected after Jokowi’s instruction.

Apart from a better map, Siti said the government was also preparing the revision of government regulation (PP) No. 71/2014 on the protection and management of peatland.

“We are revising the PP with new policies. For example, an area that has been burned can be confiscated by us. Even in peatland areas that have been granted permits, there should be no land clearing activities anymore,” she said. “So the changes in the 10th revision of the map will be more significant.”

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Indonesia: Jakarta’s poor forced to scrimp on costly water

Jesslyn Angelia, The Jakarta Post 18 Dec 15;

An important part of Udin’s daily routine involves buying 20-liter containers of water from a city vendor. “We spend more than Rp 350,000 on water every month,” he said. “I am retired so my son-in-law, who works at the harbor, provides for my daughter, her two sons and I”.

Udin, who lives in Muara Baru, North Jakarta, says that he buys three containers of water everyday, each costing him Rp 4,000. “We use the water for everything; to wash, to shower, to drink,” he explained.

The government has estimated that middle-income households use an average of 180 liters of water per person per day. Meanwhile, barely able to afford their three 20-liter containers per day, Udin’s family of five are careful with their costly water.

Muhammad Reza Sahib, national coordinator at the People’s Coalition for the Right to Water (KRuHA) said that groundwater quality had been deteriorating in Jakarta, especially in North, Central and West Jakarta.

“The quality of groundwater continues to deteriorate because of a lack of effort to improve the catchment area. New areas that have been opened, by way of evictions, are being covered in concrete and rivers that are said to have been normalized have been destroyed by concrete. Land in Jakarta is increasingly porous while pressure from the ocean is strengthening, causing intrusion,” he said.

The combination of seawater intrusion, the contamination of bodies of water and groundwater, the delay in conversion of piped drinking water and the extraction of ground water by wealthy groups, malls, hotels, buildings had caused a cost increase in areas where groundwater quality was worsening, said Reza.

According to the World Bank Group’s water and sanitation program, in Jakarta, the average price of water purchased through vendors is Rp 25,000 to 40,000 per cubic-meter, which in turn means that, for their daily needs, poor households in the city have been spending an estimated 13 to 25 percent of their income on water.

The Ministerial Regulation No. 23/2006 on water rates adjustment states that a household should not have to spend more than 4 percent of its income on water necessary for daily use.

Like many others, Udin and his family have been left with no choice but to spend an increasing amount of money on water in order to fulfill their basic daily water requirements. Most coastal areas in North Jakarta have no access to piped water and shallow groundwater wells have been affected by saltwater intrusion.

Those low-income households with access to piped water are only charged Rp 1,575 per cubic-meter of water. With piped water, Mulyana, who lives in Kedoya in West Jakarta, says that she spends an average of Rp 26,000 per month.

The two water operators in the city, PT Aetra Air Jakarta and PT PAM Lyonnaise Jaya (PALYJA) serve only 60 percent of the city’s residents.

The rest of the population depends on groundwater from community wedge wells, water vendors and private networks connected to deep wells.

“The quality of groundwater continues to deteriorate because of a lack of effort to improve the catchment area.”

Water specialist Firdaus Ali said that 89.7 percent of shallow groundwater (less than 60 meters deep) in Jakarta was contaminated with domestic waste. “Shallow groundwater has a high chance of being contaminated. We don’t have a good sanitation system, we only have septic tanks and they are not designed to be safe,” Firdaus added.

“Contamination is highly likely if septic tanks aren’t built well,” said Bawa Sarasa, the head of the Jakarta Environmental Management Agency’s (BPLHD) groundwater and wastewater management. BPLHD has reported that 41 percent of wells used by households are less than 10 meters from septic tanks.

Moreover, the lack of green space in the city hampers the renewal of shallow groundwater in Jakarta. “There is very little surface left for absorption,” Bawa emphasized.

PALYJA spokesperson, Meyritha Maryanie claims that from 1998 onward it recorded a 100 percent growth in customers and that most growth came in the form of low-income households. Currently, 20 percent of Palyja’s customers are low-income households, according to Meyritha.

The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.

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Vietnam: Two tonnes of elephant tusks seized

More than two tonnes of elephant tusks, illegally brought into Vietnam from Mozambique have been seized, an official said Friday.
Channel NewsAsia 18 Dec 15;

HANOI: More than two tonnes of elephant tusks, illegally brought into Vietnam from Mozambique have been seized, an official said Friday (Dec 18).

The 2.2 tonnes of tusks, 835 individual pieces, were discovered on Thursday among sacks of beans, a customs official from northern Hai Phong port told AFP, asking not to be named.

The state-run Phap Luat Vietnam newspaper said the shipment was supposed to be delivered to a local company registered in the communist country.

The report said the company, however, denied ordering the shipment, adding that the Mozambique origin container had docked at Hai Phong port in late November.

Tusks and other body parts of elephants are prized for decoration as talismans and for use in traditional medicine across parts of Asia despite a lack of peer reviewed scientific evidence that such items have any medicinal properties.

Vietnam outlawed the ivory trade in 1992 but shops can still sell ivory dating from before the ban.

But the country's black market still thrives with a kilogram of elephant tusk selling for as much as $2,100 dollars.

The international trade in ivory, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 following the drop in the population of African elephants from millions in the mid-20th century to just 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.

Communist Vietnam has long been accused of being one of the world's worst countries for trade in endangered species.

There have been a number of campaigns to warn Vietnamese not to use products from endangered animals but they have had little success.

Throughout this year Vietnamese police have made frequent, sizeable seizures of dozens of tonnes of illegally imported elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales.

- AFP/pp

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Malaysia deforestation linked to human cases of monkey malaria

Reuters Yahoo News 17 Dec 15;

LONDON (Reuters) - Deforestation in Malaysia and the changes it causes to the environment are highly likely to be to blame for a steep rise in human cases of a type of malaria usually found in monkeys, scientists said on Thursday.

The mosquito-borne disease, known as Plasmodium knowlesi malaria, is common in forest-dwelling macaque monkeys and was only recently found for the first time in people, the scientists said in a study of the issue.

Yet with widespread deforestation alongside rapid oil palm and other agricultural expansion, the disease has now become the most common form of human malaria in many areas of Malaysia, they said, and has been reported across southeast Asia.

In research published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, scientists led by Kimberly Fornace of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said their analysis showed that changes in the way land is used is a key driver in the emergence of P. knowlesi in people.

"The dramatic rise in the number of P. knowlesi malaria cases in humans in Malaysia in the past ten years has been most common in areas with deforestation, as well as areas that are close to patches of forest where humans, macaques and mosquitoes are coming into closer and more frequent contact," said Fornace.

She said this suggests there is a higher risk of P. knowlesi transmission in areas where land use is changing.

"This knowledge will help focus efforts on these areas and also predict and respond to future outbreaks," she added. "We view deforestation as having distinct public health consequences which need to be urgently addressed."

The study focused on Malaysia's Kudat and Kota Marudu districts, covering an area of more than 3,000 square kilometres with a population of approximately 120,000 people.

Fornace's team used hospital records for 2008-2012 to collect data on the number of P. knowlesi cases from villages in the districts.

Satellite data helped the team to map the local forest, land use and environmental changes around 450 villages to correlate how these changes might affect human infection.

They found the number of P. knowlesi cases was strongly linked to deforestation around the villages.

This could be explained by a number of factors, they said, including people working in tree clearance and agriculture having closer contact with forest areas where macaques and mosquitoes live. Macaque populations are also becoming more densely concentrated in forests where people work.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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Loss of monkeys and birds in tropical forests driving up carbon emissions

Overhunting affects seed dispersal and thus survival of hardwood trees, resulting in drastic reduction in Earth’s natural carbon storage, study finds
Damian Carrington The Guardian 18 Dec 15;

Large fruit-eating monkeys and birds in tropical forests have been revealed as surprising climate change champions, whose loss to over-hunting is driving up carbon emissions. This is because their seed-spreading plays a vital role in the survival of huge, hard-wooded trees.

Tropical forests store 40% of all the carbon on the Earth’s surface and the slashing of trees causes about 15% of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

Long-lived, thick and hard-wooded trees are especially good carbon stores, but they have large seeds that can only be dispersed via defecation by large animals. These big creatures have suffered huge losses from subsistence hunters, meaning hardwood trees are being replaced with softwood trees, which have smaller seeds but store less carbon.

“In much of the tropics these [large] animals are pretty much gone, outside of protected areas and sometimes even inside protected areas,” said Prof Carlos Peres, at the University of East Anglia, UK, one of the international team behind the new study. “[Hardwood trees] require these big beasts to disperse their seeds. This is what is being lost.”

“Policies to reduce carbon emissions from tropical countries have primarily focused on deforestation,” Peres said. “But our research shows that a decline in large animal populations poses a serious risk for the maintenance of tropical forest carbon storage.”

The new research was led by scientists at São Paulo State University in Brazil and published in Science Advances. It focused on the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, where 95% of all trees rely on animals to disperse seeds, and analysed the interactions between 800 animal species and 2,000 tree species.

It found losses of large animals like woolly spider monkeys, tapirs and toucans leads to the loss of hardwood trees. These are replace by softwood trees, whose smaller seeds (less than 12mm long) are spread by small fruit-eating marsupials, bats and birds which are not the target of hunters. The scientists estimated that 10-15% of the carbon stored in the original mixed forest is lost.

Peres said the same effects were likely to apply to other tropical forests, including the Amazon. “This is a fairly universal process,” he said. “It is happening across the tropics, in Africa, southeast Asia, everywhere there are these species-rich forests.”

The scientists concluded: “Our result highlights the fragility of carbon storage service in tropical forests under the current global change conditions. Halting the ongoing, fast-paced [animal loss in] tropical forests will not only save large charismatic animals and the plants they disperse but also have effects on climate change, carbon markets, and reforestation.”

In November, the first comprehensive estimate of threatened species in the Amazon rainforest found that more than half of the myriad species could be heading for extinction. Among the species expected to suffer significant falls in numbers are the Brazil nut, and wild cacao and açai trees, all important food sources.

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As Habitat Vanishes, Migratory Birds Are in Free Fall

Claire Runge, University of California, Santa Barbara; James Watson, WCS and the University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, University of Queensland Yahoo News 19 Dec 15;

Claire Runge is a postdoctoral scholar at the National Centre for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, previously at the University of Queensland; James Watson is director of science and research with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and an associate professor at the University of Queensland; Richard Fuller is an associate professor at the University of Queensland. The authors contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles on the planet, millions of birds migrate each year between their breeding and wintering grounds, undertaking journeys that are remarkable feats of navigation, yet incredibly dangerous.

Migrations can span vast distances, such as the bar-tailed godwit's single flight of nearly 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers), or the Arctic terns, which over the course of their lifetimes travel the same distance as going to the moon and back — three times. Some of them return year after year to the same location, navigating across a planet now vastly changed by humans.

Lost landmarks, lost migrations

Protecting these magical journeys is increasingly challenging in the face of rampant habitat loss around the world. Each year, more and more birds return to former breeding sites only to find concrete, houses, roads and farms. Key stopover sites, where birds rest and refuel on their journey, are increasingly being lost.

It has long been argued that one of the best ways to protect migratory birds is to put aside land in protected areas. Yet in a study published recently in Science, we revealed that more than 90 percent of migratory species are missing adequate protection in one or more of their seasonal ranges.

Bit by bit, the planet is losing the places that migrating birds need to make their annual journeys .

More than half of all migratory birds across the world have declined during the last 30 years. For example, the cerulean warbler is a tiny sky-blue bird that migrates annually from the eastern United States to Colombia and Venezuela. The mature forest this bird relies on at either end of its journey has been largely converted to agriculture and urbanization, and the species has declined by more than 80 percent in the past four decades, according to BirdLife International.

Without protection across their breeding grounds, wintering grounds and the migration corridors in between, birds are highly vulnerable to threats such as vegetation clearing, hunting and pollution. As ecological damage continues to expand across the globe, migratory birds are losing crucial links in the chain of sites on which they rely.

For example, loss of coastal habitats in a small area of the Yellow Sea has driven large declines in millions of migratory shorebirds that migrate between the Arctic and Australia each year.

No single country can solve this

The efforts of any single country to protect migratory birds can be futile if the birds remain unprotected elsewhere along their migratory route. Germany's protected areas adequately protect 98 percent of the migratory bird species within its borders, but fewer than 13 percent of those species have sufficient cover along their entire migration.

This is not a case of wealthy nations losing natural heritage to poor nations. Case in point: In the Western hemisphere, many Central American countries with low gross domestic product (GDP) have sufficient protected areas for more than 75 percent of their migratory species, but these species are less protected in Canada and the United States.

Global cooperation is critical for conserving migratory species. A number of international agreements are in place to protect biodiversity, including specific arrangements for migratory species, but our analyses show there is a long way to go. We found that rather than being located in the best places to connect the gaps for migratory species, the placement of protected areas across the globe is no better than random. International agreements, like the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, have yet to show signs of progress in guiding the placement of protected areas for migratory species.

Safeguarding the world's migratory birds will require much more imaginative use of international mechanisms to create new protected areas and improve the management of those that already exist. Countries will need to develop and strengthen agreements and mechanisms to allow transfer of resources (both in terms of funding and transfer of scientific knowledge and skills) between nations, across flyways.

There is still time

Despite our findings, there is hope. Right now, countries around the world are working to increase the extent of their protected areas to fulfill commitments they made in 2010, when leaders from around the world met in Aichi, Japan, at the 10th Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties, to set conservation-protected-area targets for the next decade. This global push to expand protected areas is our best chance to fill in the gaps for migratory birds and there have been some signs of progress.

The Bahamas recently announced new protected areas spanning more than 7 million acres. This is vital habitat for many migratory birds including the largest congregation of the endangered piping plover outside the United States. Portugal recently announced protection of key seabird habitat, a vital step in conserving the critically endangered Balearic shearwater, Europe's rarest seabird. Nations need to make sure future protected areas are established in the right places to fill in the gaps we have discovered for migratory birds.

However, much more remains to be done. Nations must (i) create new protected areas and locate them at the most important sites for migratory birds, (ii) improve the management of those protected areas that already exist, and (iii) coordinate conservation actions across international borders to maximize efforts.

Governments have already made substantial commitments to increase the extent of protected areas by 2020 through the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets. They must fulfill these promises and ensure that they do so in the most effective ways for conserving species. Increased international cooperation is essential, as is strategic science that can provide information on what places are "bottlenecks" for individual migrant species.

Without urgent action to strengthen coordination between countries, many migratory species will continue to dramatically decline and the incredible migratory journeys that have sustained fantastically evolved bird populations and amazed people for generations could be lost forever.

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Study: Rising lake temperatures may worsen algae blooms

JOHN FLESHER Associated Press Yahoo News 17 Dec 15;

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Some of the world's biggest temperature jumps are happening in lakes — an ominous sign that suggests problems such as harmful algae blooms and low-oxygen zones hazardous to fish will get worse, says a newly released scientific report.

An analysis of 235 lakes that together hold more than half the earth's fresh surface water found they have warmed an average of 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit or 0.34 degrees Celsius per decade, the report said. While seemingly insignificant, the increase is bigger than those recorded in the oceans or the atmosphere.

Such rapid swings can affect aquatic ecosystems in profound ways, raising concerns about the quality of waters that people rely on for drinking supplies, crop irrigation and energy production.

"The message we're getting from our lakes is that they're getting more and more stressed," Catherine O'Reilly, an Illinois State University geologist who led the study, said Thursday. "With these rates of warming, the problems we're seeing will become increasingly common."

Dozens of scientists in six continents took part in the project, funded partly by NASA and the National Science Foundation. The results, made public this week during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, were based on a first-of-its-kind combination of temperature data from satellites and ground measurements over 25 years. They are being published in the group's journal, Geophysical Research Letters.

Lakes warming at the average worldwide rate or higher were widespread, including the Dead Sea, Lake Tahoe, Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Fracksjon in Sweden. But deep lakes in cold regions had the most rapid changes, said John Lenters of LimnoTech, a water science consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

They included four of the five U.S. Great Lakes — Superior, Huron, Michigan and Ontario. Only Lake Erie, the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, was below average. Superior, the deepest and coldest, warmed three times faster than the global average.

In addition to rising air temperatures, factors causing lakes to warm vary among regions, scientists said. The Great Lakes and others in northern climates are losing winter ice earlier, and some areas are getting less cloud cover, exposing their surfaces to more sunlight.

Algae blooms flourish in warmer waters. The report predicted a 20 percent boost in lake algae over the next century, including a 5 percent increase in blooms that are toxic to fish and animals. An outbreak of toxic algae left more than 400,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio, and southeastern Michigan without usable tap water for two days in August 2014.

Such an increase would expand "dead zones" with so little oxygen that fish cannot survive, O'Reilly said. It also would boost emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide, the leading cause of climate change.

Warming causes a different problem for some lakes. In eastern Africa, Lake Tanganyika is less able to blend warm water near the surface with colder layers farther down, reducing distribution of nutrients for algae on which fish feed.

Donald Uzarski, director of the Institute for Great Lakes Research at Central Michigan University, who was not involved with the study, said its findings were consistent with other water temperature measurements in places such as the Great Lakes and Poyang Lake in China.

Other likely results of warmer lakes, he said, include lower lake levels, damaged coastal wetlands and exotic species invasions.

"What seems to be nothing more than a small change in water temperature produces a domino effect that drastically impacts the ecosystem," Uzarski said.

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