Southeast Asia's Haze and the Planet's Problem
There’s some good news about the world’s rainforests: Destruction in the Amazon has slowed to a fifth of its pace a decade ago. And the United Nations-backed climate change deal signed in December recognized forests as part of the solution to curbing carbon emissions. There’s bad news, too. Just ask Indonesia’s furious neighbors in the modern city-state of Singapore, who are periodically enveloped in what they call the haze, a blanket of stinging smoke from forest fires set during the dry season from June to October to clear land for palm oil and paper plantations. The annual event disrupts air travel, causes early deaths and costs Asia’s economies billions of dollars. The fires have made Indonesia one of the world’s worst global warming offenders, as deforestation creates about the same amount of greenhouse gases each year as cars, airplanes and other modes of transport combined.
Smoky skies and unhealthy pollution levels returned to Singapore in late August even as Indonesia's government predicted a less severe haze than in 2015. Back then, dry conditions from the El Nino weather pattern fed more than 100,000 fires in Indonesia, among the most damaging ever recorded. The smoke sent local residents fleeing and blew over to Malaysia and Singapore, where pollution spiked to hazardous levels and closed schools. Plantations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo use illegal slash-and-burn techniques, which are 20 times cheaper than other methods for clearing land. Enforcement of forest-protection laws in Indonesia has been complicated by decentralized government in the sprawling archipelago, which feeds corruption among local officials. A complex web of overlapping land permits prevents the publication of a comprehensive map that could help pin down who is responsible. While tiny particles in the haze make it harmful to health, the fires were also expected to pump out more carbon dioxide in 2015 than the entire output of Germany or the U.K. Those kinds of levels help explain why forests were included in the climate change agreement signed by 195 nations in Paris after missing out in previous deals. Indonesia also joined a pledge by leaders to intensify efforts to protect forests. More than half the country’s emissions are produced by its carbon-rich peatlands, where the tree canopy shields waterlogged soil that is drained when cleared, leaving a vast area of tinder that can explode and smolder deep under the ground for years.
Indonesia overtook Brazil as the world’s leader in forest loss in 2012, with some studies finding that trees are disappearing at twice the rate of what the government reports. Logging and land clearing accelerated from the 1990s as demand for pulp, paper and palm oil surged, offering a route out of poverty for many Indonesians. The country produces about half of the world’s $50 billion palm oil crop each year. It’s cheaper than other vegetable oils and widely used in products from mayonnaise to makeup. Norway pledged in 2010 to give Indonesia $1 billion to save its trees, leading to a government moratorium on developing peatlands and primary forests; hardly any of the money has been disbursed. Globally, the rate of deforestation per year slowed by a third to about 5.2 million hectares — an area the size of Denmark — in the ten years ending 2010 compared with the previous decade. Better agricultural practices, aggressive satellite monitoring in Brazil and easing population pressures in some African nations have helped. Forests are being replanted in India and in Costa Rica, which has become a global magnet for ecotourism.
Consumers of palm oil and other forest products must be part of the solution, conservationists argue. Some makers of household products have pledged to buy only from producers that comply with environmental standards, though supply chains can include smaller plantations contributing to the problem. Activists point to a web of vested interests that prevents Indonesia from enforcing laws to prevent illegal logging and burning. Environmental groups say it needs to follow the lead of other countries that have slowed deforestation by strengthening its moratorium on permits, finding alternative ways to develop poor districts and restoring damaged peatlands. Indonesia’s president has requested $3.6 billion from richer nations to help restore peatlands and says the process of identifying those responsible and revoking licenses takes time. A government suit against a pulp company accused of causing damage by illegal burning was thrown out by a district court on in December. Researchers say it could take up to a decade to stop the burning that causes the haze. Conservation groups point to setbacks in Brazil’s efforts to scale back deforestation and have criticized the Paris agreement for failing to commit financial backing. Supporters of the deal note that preserving or regrowing rainforests may be among the most straightforward and economic ways to meet emissions targets.
The Reference Shelf
- Singapore’s summary of the impact of haze pollution and a Greenpeace fact sheet.
- World Wildlife Fund's page on the haze and guide to best sustainability practices for Southeast Asian banks and companies.
- Scientific American looked at the pace of deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists examined the impact of peat destruction on air quality and human health.
- The Guardian’s interactive report on palm oil.
- Mongabay, a conservation website and the journalism project InfoAmazonia.
- QuickTakes on El Nino, climate change and Indonesia’s nationalism.
- The Paris agreement on climate change (see article 5) and the leaders’ pledge on forests.
First published Oct. 15, 2015
To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Kyunghee Park in Singapore at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at email@example.com