A strong aerosol haze event is currently affecting Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia. Last night, the 3-hr Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) for Singapore reached 155, the highest since the infamous 1997 Southeast Asian haze event.
What causes the haze?
As with most other haze events that effect Singapore, the current event is being produced by fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. Although natural factors such as rainfall variation associated with El Nino are important factors for determining how easily the fires spread, most of the fires are started by people in order to clear peat forests for agricultural purposes. These fires can often smoulder in the peat for a long time, releasing so-called biomass burning aerosols into the atmosphere. If the wind conditions are right, many of these aerosols are blown to Singapore where they remain suspended in the air until they are either blown elsewhere or removed by rainfall. (Haze events in other parts of the world often have other causes, e.g. industrial sulphur emissions.)
What are the effects of the haze?
It is well known that aerosols can have adverse effects on human health. In particular, small aerosol particles can penetrate deep into the human lungs and even other organs. In addition to the health impacts, aerosols may also affect climate, clouds and precipitation. Aerosol effects are actually responsible for some of the largest uncertainties in projections of future climate.
What can be done to avoid Southeast Asian haze events?
Before continuing, I should clarify that I am neither a policy maker nor a lawyer, but merely a physical scientist. However, I thought it would be interesting to briefly consider some possible options for avoiding future haze events. I am fortunate to have been able to have had a very helpful discussion with a lawyer over dinner last night. This lawyer (my wife, Ailene!) has contributed many considerations to my thinking, and has also provided helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post. (Thank you Ailene!) I do, of course, take full responsibility for any errors or misunderstandings that remain.
Option 1: Encourage the Indonesian government to prevent the fires
This is currently the status quo. For example, the Singapore National Environment Agency (NEA) said they have “urged the Indonesian authorities to look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence” in a press release yesterday. Although Indonesia has not ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, I have heard that there has been a general reduction in the fires since 1997. If so, the Indonesian government should be commended for this. However, they need to do more, and international pressure may encourage them to make further improvements. In May 2011, Indonesia started a 2-year moratorium on the award of concessions for the exploitation of primary forests and peatlands as part of the to the UN-REDD programme, an important step towards better management of forests. However, there are at least two major shortcomings. First, corruption is a problem, with patronage networks undermining regulations, particularly in the lucrative palm oil industry. Second, even when authorities do have a genuine desire to prevent burning on their land, enforcement may be difficult for a country with limited resources and such a large land area (see Option 2 below).
Option 2: Prosecute companies responsible for the burning
(a) Prosecution for violation of Indonesian regulations against burning
Many of the fire hotspots can be detected by satellites, allowing fire reports to be produced by institutes such as the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP). It may often be possible to identify companies that have been granted land rights to the areas where fires occur, particularly if the Indonesian government cooperates by sharing this information. Let us assume that it is possible to identify such a company, Company X, with widespread burning on its land. Since Company X is the only company with logging rights on this land, it appears more likely than not that Company X is responsible, assuming that the burning is not caused by trespassers. However, unless there are observers on the ground, unlikely for remote parts of Sumatra, it may be difficult to completely prove that Company X is responsible for that particular instance of burning because they may blame trespassers. Hence it may be difficult to prosecute them. Incidentally, even if there was sufficient evidence to prove that Company X was responsible for the burning, the prosecution would need to be carried out in Indonesia. Even if Company X was a Singapore-registered company, they could not be prosecuted in Singapore for a breach of an Indonesian regulatory offence.
(b) Prosecution of Singapore-registered companies for violation of Singaporean regulations
Such regulations do not currently exist. If such a regulation were to be created, it should be clear as to what specifically the Act aims to regulate. A regulation which prohibits the burning of peatland would be built on the underlying assumption that it is the burning of peatland which causes haze. The regulation would thus target one of the human made causes of haze. Such regulation may be more effective than resorting to the common law of tort. The latter produces jurisdictional problems (should the suit be brought in Indonesia or Singapore?), problems in proof of causation (did the specific act of Company X’s burning cause the specific haze problem produced in Singapore?), problems in proof of loss (what is the loss to the individual seeking to sue?) and even problems of locus standi (if this is a widespread problem not specifically affecting one or a specific group of individuals, who has standing to sue Company X?). By contrast, the former would target the specific act of burning peat forest without the need to prove loss or causation beyond the starting of the fires.
Option 3: Name and shame companies responsible
We have established that it may be difficult to prosecute Company X. How about naming and shaming them? Well, if an NGO or individual were to do this they would be vulnerable to being charged with libel. Even if the NGO/individual could eventually win the case, the legal fees would be large and Company X may succeed in bankrupting them by drawing the case out over a long period of time. So any NGO or individual thinking of taking the naming and shaming approach needs to be careful! However, the naming and shaming approach may be successful if were to be carried out carefully by a large NGO or the Singaporean government.
Option 4: Fight the fires as soon as they start
Effective fast response firefighting would control the fires and also discourage companies from starting them. However, the peat fires are difficult to put out, particularly when they are burning over such a large area. A further complication is that the the fires are often spread across remote areas of Sumatra, so fighting all of the burning may well be beyond the means of the resources available to the Indonesia authorities. International assistance may be of some benefit here. Malaysian firefighters participated in the largest ever cross-border firefighting operation during the 1997 fires. The Singaporean Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, has said that the government is “in touch with the Indonesian authorities to register our concern, and renew our offer of assistance”. If this offer includes the use of firefighting resources, Indonesia should accept. However, the process of involving non-Indonesian firefighting resources may be delayed by Indonesia’s concerns about its sovereignty, particularly if the Singaporean or Malaysian military are involved. The longer the delay, the more the fires may spread. A fast firefighting response is desirable. One possible way to improve response time in future would be for ASEAN to form a central firefighting unit, completely independent of any individual country’s military. Of course, a lot of cooperation and funding would be required in order to make the unit large enough to be effective.
A final word
Preventing haze events is a very difficult challenge for ASEAN. Governments should be commended when progress has been made. But more should be done. Intergovernmental cooperation is vital. It is worth noting that, despite the inherent difficulties, this is probably a far easier problem to solve than the challenges of mitigating climate change. If ASEAN countries can successfully work together to overcome the haze problems, then this provides hope that they may be able to work together to prevent deforestation through a REDD+ mechanism. ASEAN may subsequently be able to become a world leader in sustainable development, particularly the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors. Can this generation step up to the challenge?