Hope on reducing air pollution in South East Asia
Smoke from land clearing fires in Indonesia causes hazardous haze pollution in South East Asia every year. Record high levels of air pollution caused by haze were reached in June 2013 in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In response to regional pressure after the latest haze crisis, Indonesia has finally agreed to adopt the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution from 2002. However, given the pact's weak compliance provisions, will the ratification really be a game-changer in South East Asia's struggle with haze?
In June 2013 South East Asia was suffocating in a cloud of record-breaking haze pollution. The haze, toxic smog caused by fires to clear land for agriculture in Sumatra, Indonesia, exceeded almost three times the hazardous limit for air quality. For a week the most affected areas of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia resembled a post-apocalyptic scene — people only dared go out with face masks, schools were closed, the economy took a hit as businesses suspended work, events were cancelled, tourists stayed clear of the area and hospitals faced a surge of respiratory illnesses. The fires also impact climate change because they produce large amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the burning of carbon-rich peatland and forests. To illustrate the magnitude of the problem: the land-clearing fires which cause transboundary haze are also the biggest contributor to Indonesia’s overall GHG emissions. 2013 may have been the worst haze crisis in the region's recorded history, but similar occurrences are the norm during 'haze season' every year since the 1980s.
In 2002, ASEAN member countries addressed the environmental issue by adopting the world's first regional agreement against haze — the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. The Agreement is a legally binding regional environmental treaty that aims to prevent and mitigate haze pollution 'through concerted national efforts and intensified regional and international cooperation'. Unfortunately, two big problems reduce the effectiveness of the Agreement. The first is that Indonesia, the only ASEAN member state yet to ratify the Agreement, is also the main polluter. The second problem concerns the design of the Agreement, which has a weak mechanism for dispute settlement and punishing non-compliance. The Agreement does not prescribe specific sanctions against a signatory country that has infringed its obligations. Instead, Article 27 of the Agreement feebly states that any disputes over non-compliance 'shall be settled amicably by consultation or negotiation'. In other words, enforcing the Agreement, even over countries that have ratified it, remains a matter of diplomacy, rather than law. It would not provide suffering countries and people with new legal remedies in future outbreaks of haze pollution.
The fact that the transboundary haze problem is not resolved for almost three decades is a testament to the complexity and magnitude of the interests and issues behind it.
Smog in Kuala Lumpur image via Shutterstock.
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