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Blame game can't solve Southeast Asia's haze crisis
Sun Xi

Sun Xi says Singapore may have to help pay for a plan to stop illegal forest burning in Sumatra

The more than 20-year-old cross-boundary haze malady has hit Singapore again, but this time the situation is much worse, with pollution levels breaking several records.

With the crisis, the blame game is under way again. While Singapore has urged Indonesia to take tougher action against illegal forest burning, Indonesia has said Singaporean and Malaysian palm oil companies bear ultimate responsibility.

However, playing the blame game never works; all stakeholders must co-operate to solve the crisis.

In the short term, the most pressing matter is to extinguish the expanding hot spots as soon as possible. Indonesia has begun cloud-seeding in an effort to create rain and put out the fires, while Singapore has offered an assistance package.

In the long run, government intervention should be considered to force polluters to pay for the cost of the solution.

First, it is clear that Indonesia should bear top responsibility, given that the pollution happens within its territory. In fact, Indonesia has laws and regulations in place to ban illegal forest burning. However, clearing land this way is common due to weak law enforcement.

The "slash and burn" technique is favoured because it remains the cheapest land clearing method. Therefore, the government should consider introducing subsidies or reward schemes to encourage more environmentally friendly land-clearing practices, along with stricter punishment.

Furthermore, Indonesia should welcome neighbours' aid to tackle environmental challenges. To become a responsible emerging regional power, Indonesia should consider ratifying the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Second, there is no doubt Singapore is a victim and theoretically should be compensated. However, to be realistic, it may have to choose to either suffer the costs of haze pollution or bear the costs of pollution abatement with Indonesia and Malaysia.

Singapore should also keep pushing for greater co-operation with Indonesia, despite the political sensitivities involved.

Third, global customers should ultimately share the cost of a haze-free Singapore and Southeast Asia. Consumers of palm oil products from the region should pay for the extra costs of greener land practices while global investors should contribute through responsible investment in environmentally conscious palm oil companies.

Moreover, regional and international organisations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, should also contribute to solve the long-standing problem. After all, pollution knows no boundaries.

Sun Xi, a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an investment analyst based in Singapore

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Blame game can't solve SE Asia's haze crisis
 
Malaysia, Singapore should cough up cash to Indonesia to curb haze
 
Your letters: Compensation for the haze? | The Jakarta Post
 
完整版

WHO Should Pay for a Haze-free Singapore?

 

By SUN Xi

The over 20-years old transboundary haze malady is hitting Singapore again, but this time the situation is much worse. The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) has broken several historical records, with the peak over 400 which was categorised as “Hazardous” level.

Along with the on-going haze crisis, the Blame Game is under high gear again. While Singapore urged Indonesia to take tougher action against the illegal forest burning activities, Indonesia deflected blame by arguing that Singaporean and Malaysian palm oil companies might bear the root responsibility.

Domestically, some people slammed Singapore government and the ruling party of lacking tough stance and effective actions, while Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam  refuted such irrational 'political attack' which ignored Singapore's vulnerability and limitation as a result of its natural 'size and geography'.

However, playing the Blame Game never works, just like a Japanese environmental expert ever said, "Blaming China can't solve the air pollution problem." All stakeholders must cooperate constructively to solve the haze crisis together. So, let’s stop blaming but think about solutions for both short term and long term.

In the short term, the most pressing matter is to extinguish those expanding hotspots as soon as possible. It is good news that Indonesia has agreed to try its best to control the fire and will begin cloud-seeding "based on needs on the ground", but Singapore should also be ready to provide possible assistance or even dispatch water-dropping aircrafts if necessary later.

Domestically, government and people should work together to minimize the damage. Government should keep the public updated of the haze situation, provide professional guidance about healthy living and working, offer necessary medical and living subsidies, and may even consider implementing cloud-seeding. Individually, people can take some preventive measures such as wearing mask, taking medicine and staying indoor, when necessary.

In the long run, the solution may be derived from the cause. Externalities are one of the typical reasons which may cause market failures and environment pollution is a typical negative externality. Once such a market failure occurs, possible government interventions should be considered to force polluters to internalize the cost of pollution so as to make the remedy.

First, it is clear that Indonesia should bear the top responsibility to solve the haze pollution, because the pollution happens within its territory. No matter the polluters are Indonesian local farmers or foreign companies, foreign governments have limited influence to stop them.

In fact, Indonesia has relevant laws and regulations in place to ban illegal forest burning, however, illegal land clearing by palm oil developers is common due to weak forestry law enforcement. The "slash-and-burn" technique has been used till today, simply because it is still the cheapest land clearing method. The basic problem is about cost, so only "stick" may not be enough and those farmers likely prefer "carrot".

Therefore, Indonesian government may consider introducing certain subsidy or reward schemes to encourage more environmental friendly land clearing practices, along with stricter punishments and higher fines on those responsible companies and farmers. Such "stick and carrot approach" has been successfully implemented to eliminate straw burning in China. Yes, it may increase Indonesia’s government expenditure, but its own people will surely benefit from a haze-free environment, because in fact, Indonesia itself suffered most from the haze pollution.

Furthermore, Indonesia should welcome neighbours' aid to tackle environmental challenges together. And to become a responsible emerging power and to gain a good international reputation, Indonesia should consider ratifying the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution adopted in 2002 in the future.

Second, there is no doubt that Singapore is a victim in the haze pollution and theoretically it should be compensated. However, to be realistic, Singapore may have to choose either suffer the cost from haze pollution or bear certain cost of the pollution abatement with Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Brunei and Thailand.

The cost from haze pollution is huge. The visible cost occurred from the haze pollution at least includes increased health care and living expenditure, working productivity losses, commercial losses from certain industries especially tourism. Then the invisible cost of losing fresh air, disrupted normal life and reputational losses as a 'garden city' is also considerable. The great South-east Asian haze of 1997 was estimated resulting in US$9 billion losses in total.

As long as Singpaore’s overall willingness-to-pay (WTP) for a haze-free nation is higher than the cost from haze pollution, it is cost-benefit worthy to bear certain cost of the haze pollution abatement.

In a typical upstream-downstream water pollution and quality conflict, downstream users usually choose to invest wisely in a range of conservation and protection activities in the upstream watersheds. Unfortunately, Singapore is the downstream victim in most of the haze pollution cases. Therefore, Singapore should continuously to persuade Indonesia to accept more bilateral anti-haze cooperation, such as alternative land clearing method campaigns and forest conservation programmes in Sumatra.

Political sensitivity of such cooperation is indeed an obstacle, but even Japan can successfully offer air pollution abatement help amid strained ties with China, Singapore will be wise enough to convince Indonesia too.

Third, global customers should ultimately share the cost of a haze-free Singapore and Southeast Asia. Those consumers of palm oil products sourced from Southeast Asia should pay the extra cost caused by non "slash-and-burn" techniques, and those foreign visitors should pay a higher premium for travelling in Southeast Asia.

Global investors should also contribute their part through responsible investment only into those haze-free investee palm oil companies.

Moreover, regional and international communities, including the ASEAN, the United Nations, and environmental NGOs should also contribute their part to solve such longstanding transboundary environmental crisis. Notably, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) may consider launching a special Haze-free labeled palm oil product certification. Environmental pollution has no border and any environmental protection activities should be supported globally, because we all share the same earth.

 

Fortunately, most Singaporean are always brave enough to face challenges rather than run away from them. Singapore was able to successfully weather the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis. It should be able to meet head-on the challenge posed by the haze.

 

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