We cannot be complacent about the haze

Indonesia’s recent ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution might bring some respite to the annual haze, but consumers must also purchase products responsibly, says WWF Singapore chief executive Elaine Tan.

land clearing burning
The haze that comes from rampant clearing of forests in Indonesia and in other parts of Southeast Asia is becoming a regional concern as it starts choking neighbouring countries. Image: Shutterstock

The haze has returned with Singapore’s air pollution or Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) fluctuating recently. Although there are days of respite when the winds come in, this situation is only going to get worse if the plantations in Sumatra and Borneo continue burning forests to make way for palm oil, pulp and paper production.

Since the Singapore and Indonesian governments forged the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, we can look forward to positive impact from the measures taken. The Singapore government also passed a Bill recently that imposes fines on companies that cause or contribute to transboundary haze pollution in Singapore.

While this is encouraging news, it is not enough. As consumers, we can pitch in to help resolve the issue, by knowing what to look out for when buying our daily consumables. Palm oil is used in about 50 per cent of all packaged food products in supermarkets today. By 2020, global palm oil demand is expected to double. With little knowledge and information on the supply chain process, consumers are unable to identify products containing sustainably produced palm oil.

We can lend our voice to encourage retailers and brands to do the right thing – through ethical and sustainable practice, and to be transparent in product labelling.

Now is the time we should start better preparing ourselves and go beyond buying face masks and air purifiers, monitoring outdoor activities and having contingency plans for bad air quality.

We need to first understand what motivates the farmers and plantation owners to deliberately slash and burn to clear forest land. This remains the preferred method because it requires minimal labour, and is quick and cheap.

Palm oil and paper production in Sumatra are the biggest drivers of deforestation and haze. Major corporations were subsequently identified to have contributed to the severe haze that blanketed Singapore from June to September in 2013. Bills and laws and intervention will address this – to an extent.

The issue is not against palm oil usage, but the way it is produced through errant burning. Every year the haze affects our health and businesses – Singapore’s economy was reported to have lost an estimated US$1billion a week during the haze.

This is a global problem that requires a concerted effort beyond government regulation. As consumers, we have the right to demand that the products we buy are produced with the least harm to the environment. To this end, let us urge the producers to go for CSPO-certification (certified sustainable palm oil) and we can use our power by choosing CSPO-labelled products.

Collectively, we must remain vigilant and use our power to do what is right – and healthy. Even when Singapore enjoys a respite from the haze,  let us not forget the haze will return with a vengeance if governments, environmental groups, companies and members of the public do not come together to take action.

Elaine Tan is the chief executive officer of WWF Singapore.

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