Thick smog blankets Singapore’s skyline on 06/18/2013 when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), Singapore’s main index for air pollution, hit record levels. © Ferina Natasya / Greenpeace.
Corporations will have to step up as better stewards of the environment if Southeast Asia’s haze crisis is to be addressed, said Singaporean officials during a meeting held last week to discuss regional sustainability efforts.
Speaking at the first Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, Singapore Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said that economic concerns are the root cause of conditions that drive haze. He cited conversion of rainforests and peatlands for industrial plantations in nearby Sumatra, urging companies to take it upon themselves to stop clearing forests.
But if they fail to do so, they could face fines under a proposed Singaporean law that aims to punish firms found liable for causing haze. Balakrishnan said that going after corporate transgressors would yield benefits that extend well beyond Singapore, which suffered from record-setting air pollution during last year’s burning season.
“We do this not for the sake of Singapore itself. We think about the sustainability of public life in Southeast Asia,” he was quoted as saying by Mongabay-Indonesia. “There is no means to compare the losses suffered by Singapore with the pain felt by local communities annually stricken smoke as occurred in Riau province, Indonesia.”
He added that new technologies said as Global Forest Watch, a forest mapping system developed by the World Resources Institute, would boost monitoring capabilities and could help identify environmental criminals.
Fire hotspot map released by Greenpeace.
Others in attendance agreed that the private sector would have to play a role in addressing the underlying issues that drive haze. The discussion put Singapore-based logging giant APRIL in the spotlight. The forestry company has been on the receiving end of heated criticism in recent months for its failure to commit to a zero deforestation policy like that adopted by its chief rival, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).
APRIL Chairman Bey Soo Khiang said the company is working with Fauna & Flora International (FFI) to protect an area of deep peat on the Kampar Peninsula in Riau, but Bustar Maitar of Greenpeace said that wasn’t enough. Maitar suggested that APRIL copy APP’s forest conservation policy to demonstrate its commitment to ending deforestation. He noted that Singapore-based palm oil giant Wilmar has already made a similar pledge.
Jeremy Goon, Wilmar’s head of Corporate Social Responsibility, added that his company’s policy goes beyond what is required by law, including establishing sustainability indicators and identifying areas of high carbon and conservation value.
But Agus Purnomo, a top climate advisor to Indonesia’s president, said that many laws designed to protect peatlands and avoid fire are currently ignored in Indonesia. He said greater government coordination would help.
“Coordination between [government agencies] is still weak,” he said.
The urgency of devising an approach to deal with fires and haze is growing by the day. Data from NASA shows the later half of 2014 to be shaping up as the beginning of a strong El Nino event. In the past, strong El Nino events have been associated with especially severe droughts which exacerbate regional environmental problems, like deforestation, forest fires, and haze, and can inflict substantial economic costs.
The maps above shows the ten-day average of sea surface height centered on May 2, 1997 (left), and May 3, 2014. Shades of red and orange indicate where the water is warmer and above normal sea level. Shades of blue-green show where sea level and temperatures are lower than average. Normal sea-level conditions appear in white. The 1997 map was assembled from data collected by the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, while the 2014 data comes from the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason 2 satellite. Data courtesy NASA JPL Ocean Surface Topography Team. Maps by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen and Robert Simmon. Caption by Michael Carlowicz.