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Commentary: As haze season looms, what more can Singapore do to clear the air?

SINGAPORE: If there is one crucial lesson to draw from the 2015 haze crisis – during which Singapore’s skyline disappeared into a thick cloud of grey for about two months and schools were shut down as air quality hit hazardous levels – it is that we can do a lot, but we will need to act together and it will demand courage.

The authorities have warned since June that there is a high risk of severe transboundary haze this year, advising people to be prepared for the worst.

My colleagues Professor Euston Quah and Nursultan Iuldashov in a CNA commentary earlier last month asked if Singapore is prepared for the haze season, suggesting ways in which the country and its people can adapt and prepare for it. 

I believe we can do more.

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LESSONS FROM 2015

How can we better prepare for the imminent threat of transboundary haze, building on the lessons from the 2015 crisis?

Smoke haze in Singapore is caused by forest fires in the region when open burning is used to clear land for agricultural uses.

Antara News reported that the Indonesian government had issued 96 warning letters in mid-August to corporations mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan to take action on hotspot fires on their land.

As seen in past haze episodes, whenever the smog hits, a practical response takes hold: Windows across the city are shuttered and people rush to buy masks and air purifiers. But locking ourselves behind glass doors and doing nothing does not serve us well. There are solutions but we need to be creative.

Boycotts have worked. During the haze crisis in 2015, supermarkets removed the products of Asia Pulp and Paper at the urging of the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE). Global news outlets like the BBC and CNN covered the removal of these products, underscoring the impact of such collective action.

Even for palm oil, boycotts can exert influence. The case of Malaysian conglomerate IOI Group – which had its accreditation for sustainable palm oil stripped by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in April 2016 – serves as an example.

Major brands such as Nestle, Unilever and Kellogg immediately dropped IOI as a supplier, and a group of 22 green organisations called for a mass boycott. Initially, IOI brushed off the threat and even sued RSPO. But just two months later, IOI dropped the suit and said that it was adopting an action plan that would meet RSPO’s certification standards. Its accreditation was reinstated in August 2016.

What is necessary for boycotts to work is publicity about the boycott and the public’s support. Companies can draw up rules of procurement that would bar the products of those responsible for the haze pollution.

For example, government agencies in Singapore only procure printing paper that are environmentally friendly and certified with the Singapore Green Label. Private companies can consider adopting a similar policy for their paper purchase.

LEGAL LEVERS

Second, there are legal levers to pull.

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, enacted in 2014, makes it an offence to cause or contribute to any haze pollution in Singapore. It also empowers individuals and organisations in Singapore to sue those who are responsible for the pollution and who cause them to suffer economic loss.

It has always been known that the Act would be difficult to use: It must be shown that the pollution came from the defendant, and that the wind was such that it was pollution from that defendant that contributed to the pollution and the loss by the plaintiffs.

Since the Act was enacted, no one has been fined or sued, but this does not mean that it has been ineffective.

In fact, the Act had the indirect effect of lending moral weight to the Asia Pulp and Paper boycott led by SEC and CASE in 2015. In September that year, the National Environment Agency listed Asia Pulp and Paper as one of the firms it was investigating under the Act for links to regional forest fires that led to the haze.

After the SEC suspended Asia Pulp and Paper’s Green Label certification, major supermarkets here dropped its products and the company reportedly lost millions of dollars in sales.

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STEPPING UP

I hope that if or when the haze comes, Singaporeans will step up.

At August’s ASEAN ministerial meeting in Laos, members reiterated the importance of taking strong action to mitigate land and forest fires and to minimise the occurrence of transboundary haze.

They also reaffirmed their commitment to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution of 2022. Among the obligations is: “When the transboundary haze pollution originates from within their territories, (the parties shall) respond promptly to a request for relevant information or consultations sought by a state or states that are or may be affected by such transboundary haze pollution, with a view to minimising the consequences of the transboundary haze pollution.”

At least in theory, it will be more difficult for a company to not respond to an information request.

Merely adapting will not help our neighbour nor, ultimately, ourselves. We must fight and we must believe that we can make a difference in our corner of the world.

Ang Peng Hwa is a professor at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University. He is the administrator of the Facebook group, Haze Elimination Action Team.

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