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Fighting haze gets a little hazy in ASEAN

The recent ministerial meeting on transboundary haze pollution in Jakarta concluded with ministers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand agreeing to remain vigilant and step up efforts to minimise transboundary haze, in anticipation of extended dry-weather spells. While the ministers also stressed the need to develop a road map for cooperation among members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) to achieve the goal of a haze-free region by 2020, teething issues still linger.

The central business district in Singapore shrouded in haze. ASEAN’s indecisiveness in dealing with the prolonged haze episode has exposed the body’s limitations as an institution going forward. TODAY file photo

The central business district in Singapore shrouded in haze. ASEAN’s indecisiveness in dealing with the prolonged haze episode has exposed the body’s limitations as an institution going forward. TODAY file photo

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The recent ministerial meeting on transboundary haze pollution in Jakarta concluded with ministers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand agreeing to remain vigilant and step up efforts to minimise transboundary haze, in anticipation of extended dry-weather spells. While the ministers also stressed the need to develop a road map for cooperation among members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) to achieve the goal of a haze-free region by 2020, teething issues still linger.

The ASEAN Haze Monitoring System was developed by Singapore in 2012 to enhance hot-spot surveillance. It is a computerised system that combines hot-spot data, satellite images and land concession maps. This helps in identifying and holding plantation and landowners accountable for land-clearing activities and fires in their areas.

However, the system has yet to become operational, as concession maps from member countries are not available. This prompted Singapore to propose that ASEAN member states share information on a government-to-government basis as part of efforts to tackle transboundary haze in the region.

Creating accurate concession maps has been a challenge, as companies generally do not share concession boundary data. As there are laws banning certain governments from sharing concession maps, the progress on the ASEAN haze talks has been sluggish, despite numerous regional multilateral talks.

Since its formation in 1967, ASEAN’s identity as a grouping has failed to crystallise, as the notion of mutual respect for national sovereignty continues to undermine its integration. Never one to use the hard approach in dealing with any issue, ASEAN does not have a central administration or bureaucracy to enforce and impose sanctions or punitive measures.

The regional haze issue has been a test of ASEAN’s political will. While Singapore had pressed ahead and enacted in September last year the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which prosecutes those involved in illegal slash-and-burn activities outside Singapore, legislators would still need evidence and cooperation from the authorities on the ground.

TAKING A LEAF FROM EU

ASEAN could do with a breath of fresh air, picking up from the European Union, which has progressed leaps and bounds in the field of environmentalism.

The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) in Europe is one good example of how a transboundary environmental problem was successfully tackled.

This convention was the first international legally binding instrument involving 51 parties, signed in 1979 and came into force in 1983. It is one of the central means of cutting air pollutant emissions, and has served as a bridge between different political systems, significantly contributing to the development of international environmental law.

The convention shines as a prime example of what can be achieved through strong inter-governmental cooperation. Bearing semblance to the seasonal haze episodes in South-east Asia, the CLRTAP was initiated because of public outcry against the impact of acid rain in Europe, and quickly secured buy-in from its member states before being enacted.

Over the past decades, the convention has been extended by eight protocols that contain legally binding targets for emissions reduction. Each of these eight protocols targets reducing emissions from pollutants such as sulphur, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. The convention has contributed drastically to reducing the level of pollutants, with particulate matter (PM10), a component of haze, declining 28 per cent between 1999 and 2006 in the EU.

To demonstrate compliance with the CLRTAP, the contracting parties are required to provide reports periodically. Reports are evaluated by an international implementation committee, and if requirements are not met, remedial measures are discussed and agreed on. Herein lies a best practice that ASEAN can possibly adopt and adapt to cajole member states to submit their haze mitigation plans.

As the convention moves forward, it has progressively incorporated new concerns aimed at addressing multiple effects such as ground-level ozone and the revision of protocols to include more pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5). The CLRTAP has also increased focus on providing expertise to Eastern European and Central Asian nations in their initiatives to reduce impact from air pollution, by assisting them in policy development and implementation.

It is a challenge for the CLRTAP to continue to maximise the benefits to be gained from policies that address air pollution and, more broadly, climate change. Hence, the convention recognises the importance of working in an integrated manner, and has started dialogues with other international agencies, such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Stockholm Convention.

As the first regional environmental convention, the CLRTAP has been progressively instrumental in the reduction of key harmful pollutants in Europe, Canada and the United States; the latter two countries having ratified the convention in the early years.

By the same token, the EU has recently become a full member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the first regional economic integration organisation to do so. The accession of the EU as a single party to CITES is another milestone for a body that continually strives to provide the world with the highest environmental standards.

With this precedence set, it is confounding as to why ASEAN cannot emulate the success of Europe. ASEAN’s rise as a multilateral forum plays an important role in preserving the peace that has knitted South-east Asia together for the past 30 years. But its indecisiveness in dealing with the prolonged haze episode has exposed the body’s limitations as an institution going forward.

As things remain, ASEAN could increasingly become irrelevant as it struggles to enforce the structural cooperations among its members.

While ASEAN has no immediate intention of altering its ways, it can definitely learn a thing or two from the European experience. Greater conviction and solidarity, combined with secular policies and tolerance towards minority groups, could aid ASEAN’s efforts to address such issues, both individually and collectively.

ASEAN must unite as a single entity to up its ante in its fight against haze, or risk being undermined and drowned out by the voices of non-governmental groups, which actually stand united.

While ASEAN may not be able to take the giant strides of the EU, it certainly needs to awaken its dormant environmental leadership or contemplate its future as merely a ceremonial figurehead to its member states.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kavickumar Muruganathan is head of eco-certifications and lead environmental engineer at the Singapore Environment Council.

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