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Seeing Through the Southeast Asian Haze

31 Aug 2016
By Jack Greig
kl_tower. Photo Credit: Storm Crypt (Flickr) Creative Commons

The ‘haze season’ in Southeast Asia is well underway and transboundary haze pollution continues to present a serious ongoing international environmental and economic problem. It is caused by slow-burning fires on exposed peat lands that are lit by landholders who want to clear the forest growth for cultivation. The Centre for International Forestry Research reports that exposed peat lands require only a few days of dry weather to risk extreme fire danger and that, once lit, the fires are extremely difficult to extinguish.

In 2006 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reported that haze episodes between 1997 and 2002 contributed approximately 40 per cent or more than 400 million tonnes of the world’s total CO2 emissions. Transboundary haze pollution chemicals are also hazardous to human health and a dramatic spike in hospitalisations is seen during episodes.

In Southeast Asia it is an enormous problem that is often attributed to land clearing across the vast rainforests of Indonesia. It is also a problem that has worsened since the 1997-1998 haze catastrophe in the region. In June 2013 the pollutant standards index hit an all-time high in Singapore at 371. In September 2014 the Indonesian government demonstrated its desire to combat transboundary haze through the ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (ASEAN Haze Treaty). However, Indonesia alone cannot fix this problem. The government of Singapore must act to combat transboundary haze pollution for its own security, the wider wellbeing of the region and the global climate.

Fair-weather neighbours?

In response to dangerously toxic levels of transboundary haze pollution in June 2013 and the subsequent public outcry, Singapore passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 (Haze Act), criminalising the act of causing transboundary haze episodes that reach Singapore. The legislation targets commercial entities negligent in their social and environmental responsibilities by making them susceptible to both civil and criminal liability.

The problem with this approach is that it almost exclusively targets multinational corporations operating on large-scale plantations. Data collected by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) using a NASA LANDSAT 8 satellite shows that only 21 per cent of pollutants originated from fires on large-scale plantations operated by multinational corporations. In contrast, 79 per cent of instances originated in land owned or leased by small holders.

Additionally, the World Resources Institute suggests that there are significant discrepancies between maps drawn by the Indonesian Government and those held by landholders. The lack of clearly defined boundaries causes confusion making it difficult for Singaporean regulators to mount conclusive evidence on which entities may be liable for causing transboundary haze pollution.

Another of Singapore’s major policy responses has been furthering regional cooperation through the ASEAN Haze Treaty. Indonesia’s ratification of the treaty boosts its relevance but it remains a blunt device. A key element of the treaty is provision for a regional Haze Fund. ASEAN members have so far voluntarily contributed approximately half a million dollars toward the fund: a measly sum compared to the economic damage caused by transboundary haze. Further, the treaty lacks serious enforcement and implementation, meaning it will likely remain little more than a mechanism for regional-level dialogue.

A new policy approach

Singapore’s initial policy responses to transboundary haze pollution possess significant shortcomings given that it is essentially a local problem. If small holders are presented with incentives to change and offered more efficient alternatives, it is likely that transboundary haze will be reduced. Progress requires implementing targeted policies including pricing and non-pricing mechanisms; these must be backed by financial and human resources. Indonesia alone cannot dedicate the required financial resources to tackle the problem.

While affected countries in the region are best placed to negotiate policy proposals and steer implementation, the most practicable source for extensive funding is at the global level. Given the proportion of CO2 emissions that transboundary haze pollution contributes to total greenhouse gas emissions, the international community has a vested interest in mitigating peat fires. As the most directly affected countries within the region, Singapore and Indonesia should adopt the joint role of principle sponsors of a renewed transboundary haze pollution fund.

Challenges with significant localised influences are the easiest to confront because actors can make a measurable difference and receive a net benefit for cooperating. For instance, by investing in reducing Indonesian peat-fires, rich country donors will meet their agreed global carbon reduction targets. Domestically they could sell the policy as a strategy to offset their own contribution to global emissions.

One of the major uses of the fund would be to provide incentives for small landholders to adopt more sustainable land clearing and cultivation practices. As CIFOR suggests, there currently exists little incentive for landholders to change their practices because “burning methods cost approximately US$180 per hectare whereas non-burning methods cost as much as US$800 per hectare“. Hence, money would be apportioned to reputable organisations conducting research and development into new technologies enabling such practices. This research would equip landholders with more efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives.

Secondly, to reduce costs the fund would make available a certification scheme to which landholders can apply, making them eligible to receive grants for verifiable activities with measurable benefits. These public-private partnerships would make capital accessible to small landholders investing in sustainable technologies without unnecessarily impeding profitable agribusiness. This will also support the transparency of the industry by helping the Indonesian government to have greater visibility of landholders (including their property boundaries) who apply for grants.

Lastly, the fund would assist the Indonesian central and provincial governments to institute and enforce pricing mechanisms. A pricing mechanism is needed to ensure that the private economic benefits of land clearing do not exceed the negative externalities in the form of social and environmental costs. Singapore should persuade Indonesia to reinvest revenue gained from pricing mechanisms into non-government regulatory bodies that monitor and administer certification standards and enable further research and development.


The necessity for Indonesian cooperation is the obvious constraint to realising these policy recommendations. The strong influence of logging lobby groups and illegal activity, including corrupt practices, are the main reasons why certain environmental regulations have been ignored. Furthermore, the reformasi-induced process of decentralisation has paradoxically increased the difficulty of gaining consensus by multiplying the number of stakeholders and increasing the level of bureaucracy. To successfully implement the above policy recommendations will require persuasive diplomacy, as well as regional and global scrutiny for inaction.

Transboundary haze pollution continues to be a serious environmental challenge of global significance. Unsustainable peat burning practices cause the majority of haze. As one of the most seriously affected countries in the region, Singapore must step up and take the lead in empowering Indonesia to control the problem. Singapore, in cooperation with Indonesia, should lead an international financing initiative to fund both pricing and non-pricing mechanisms that incentivise and build the capacity of local actors in Indonesian haze hotspots. Despite constraints, Singapore and Indonesia must act to reduce the damage caused by transboundary haze pollution for their own safety and security and wider wellbeing of the region and global climate.

Jack Greig is an educator in Victoria and a graduate of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. This article was originally published in AIIA VIC’s Quarterly Access and can be accessed here.