Tag Archives: Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution

The Truth About Forest Fires

BBC has used satellite data to assess the severity of fires in Brazil, Indonesia, Siberia and Central Africa.  It has concluded that although fires in 2019 have wrought significant damage to the environment, they have been worse in the past.   More than 35,000 fires have been detected so far in 2019 in East Asia  spreading smoky haze to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.  But this is substantially fewer than many other years including those, such as 2015, exacerbated by the El Nino effect which brought unusually dry weather.

Haze Pollution

In Indonesia, peatland is set alight by corporations and small-scale farmers to clear land for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, and can spread into protected forested areas.  The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.  Old palm trees on plantations that no longer bear fruit are often set on fire to be replaced by younger ones.

The number of recorded fires in Brazil rose significantly in 2019, but there were more in most years in the period 2002 to 2010.  There is a similar pattern for other areas of Brazilian forestry that are not part of the Amazon basin.  For 2019, we have data up to the end of August, and the overall area burnt for those eight months is 45,000 sq km. This has already surpassed all the area burnt in 2018, but appears unlikely to reach the peaks seen in the previous decade… “Fire signals an end of the deforestation process,” says Dr Michelle Kalamandeen, a tropical ecologist on the Amazon rainforest.  “Those large giant rainforest trees that we often associate with the Amazon are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining.”

The environmental campaign group Greenpeace has called the fires that have engulfed the Russian region of Siberia this year one of the worst outbreaks this century.  The cloud of smoke generated was reported to have been the size of all the European Union countries combined.  Forest fires in Siberia are common in the summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the situation particularly bad.  Russia’s Federal Forestry Agency says more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km) have been affected since the start of 2019, already exceeding the total of 8.6 million for the whole of 2018…. Drawing on data for the number of fires, it is clear that there have been other bad years, notably in 2003.

Nasa satellites have identified thousands of fires in Angola, Zambia and DR Congo.However, these have not reached record levels.  “I don’t think there’s any evidence that the fires we’re seeing in Africa are worse than we’ve seen in recent years,” Denis McClean, of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency, told the BBC.  According to data analysed by Global Forest Watch, fires in DR Congo and Zambia are just above average for the season but have been higher in past years.  In Angola, however, fires have been reported at close to record levels this year.

Some have drawn comparisons with the situation in the Amazon, but the fires in sub-Saharan Africa are different.  Take DR Congo – most fires are being recorded in settled parts of the country’s southern, drier forest and savannah areas, and so far not in tropical rainforest.  Experts say it is difficult to know what is causing these fires, which are seasonal. Many are likely to be on grassland, woodland or savannah in poor farming communities.  “Fires are very important landscape management tools and are used to clear land for planting crops,” says Lauren Williams, a specialist in Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute.

Excerpts from Jack Goodman & Olga RobinsonIndonesia haze: Are forest fires as bad as they seem?, BBC, Sept. 19, 2019. For more details and data see BBC

Forest Fires and Haze

In 2015 a dry spell caused by the El Niño weather pattern made Indonesia’s forest fires especially severe. Smoke settled over Singapore for months and even reached Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. At least 2m hectares of forest were burned. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands sickened. For much of October 2015 greenhouse gases released by those fires exceeded the emissions of the entire American economy. The losses over five months of fires amounted to around 2% of the country’s GDP…[The event has labeled  the 2015 Southeast Asian haze]

Between 2001 and 2014, Indonesia lost 18.5m hectares of tree cover—an area more than twice the size of Ireland. In 2014 Indonesia overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest deforester.

One of the reasons for those forest fires is economic. The country produces well over half the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in cooking and cosmetics, as a food additive and as a biofuel. It accounts for around 4.5% of Indonesia’s GDP, and demand is still rising. To meet it, Indonesian farmers set fires to clear forest and make way for new plantations. Often these forests grow on peatlands, which store carbon from decayed organic matter; in tropical regions these hold up to ten times as much carbon as surface soil. Draining peatlands releases all of that carbon. The peat also becomes a fuel, so it is not just felled trees that are burning but the ground itself.

But politics also plays a part. … The president declared a moratorium on peatland-development licences and called for peat forests to be restored, even as his agriculture minister pointed out that burned peatland can be used for corn and soyabean planting….

Civil-society groups have had some success. At least 188 Indonesian palm-oil companies have made some sort of sustainability pledge, including five large multinational firms that in 2014 signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which commits them to avoiding deforestation and planting oil palms on peatland. Together those five firms account for 80% of Indonesia’s palm-oil exports.All the same, deforestation continues. Perversely, it may even have increased temporarily, as companies cleared as much land as they could before the agreement took effect. Besides, opaque supply chains allow companies to buy palm oil from suppliers not bound by IPOP.

Forests: A world on fire, Economist Special Report on Indonesia, Feb. 27, 2016

Air Pollution: the Palm Oil Conglomerates

 

Since the mid-1980s, when Indonesia first began to clear its bountiful forests on an industrial scale in favour of lucrative palm-oil plantations, “haze” has become an almost annual occurrence in South-East Asia. The cheapest way to clear logged woodland is to burn it, producing an acrid cloud of foul white smoke that, carried by the wind, can cover hundreds, or even thousands, of square miles.

The intervening decades have seen the passage of numerous national and international regulations to stop the fires, but all, it seems, to no avail. The past two weeks have seen some of the worst smog ever, taking a severe toll not only on peoples’ lungs, throats and tempers, but also on diplomatic relations and Indonesia’s attempts to improve its environmental image. Worse still, despite the outcry, it is hard to see how matters are going to improve over the next few years.

Most of the burning, which starts every dry season, is concentrated this year in Riau province on the east coast of Sumatra. Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm-oil producer and Riau its most productive province. Sadly for Singapore and Malaysia, it lies just across the Strait of Malacca from them. From June 16th Singapore and large parts of Malaysia were smothered in smog from this year’s fires.

In Singapore the pollution was the worst ever, pummelling the previous records set in 1997, when the haze affected six countries and perhaps 70m people. Then, the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) in Singapore, a measure of air quality, hit a panic-inducing 226, defined as “very unhealthy”. On June 19th, by contrast (the day of the satellite picture above), the PSI climbed to over 300, defined as “hazardous”, before peaking at 401 on June 21st. The government issued face masks and almost everyone took its advice to stay indoors. Malaysia declared a state of emergency in parts of its southern state of Johor when the Air Pollution Index, only slightly different from Singapore’s PSI, exceeded 500; it reached 750 on June 23rd. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and coastal cities were also badly affected, as was Riau province itself, where hundreds were evacuated.

Fraternal relations within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the regional political grouping, quickly dissolved into acrimonious finger-pointing. Agung Laksono, the minister in charge of Indonesia’s response to the crisis, said that Singaporeans were behaving “like children, in such a tizzy”. Singaporeans and Malaysians pointed out that Indonesia was the only ASEAN member not to have ratified a 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. It was only on June 24th, when the damage was done, that its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, apologised to his irate neighbours.

At least three laws in Indonesia prohibit the burning and clearance of forests, and in particular Sumatra’s extensive peat wetlands. But environmental campaigners argue that the government has never seriously enforced these laws. Despite the arrest in Sumatra this week of eight farmers, supposedly caught red-handed, hardly anyone has been successfully prosecuted over the years for lighting fires. Palm oil’s economic importance to Indonesia seems to afford the industry protection. Last year exports totalled $17.9 billion, second only to coal. Some 5m people live off the industry. These are big numbers in a relatively poor country.

About half of the vast amount of land on which the fires are burning in Sumatra belongs to big palm-oil conglomerates, many of them Malaysian-owned. They have been accused of setting illegal fires in the past, in order to clear more of their concessions for palm oil. Satellite imagery clearly shows fires burning on the land of some of them, and the Indonesian government has named eight companies that it wants to investigate. Even so, it is going to be very difficult to apportion blame. One company, Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, acknowledges that there have been three fires on its land, but claims these had “originally started outside of its concession area”.

Another perennial problem is corruption. This year’s disaster was preceded on June 14th by the arrest of Rusli Zainal, the governor of Riau since 2003. He was charged, among other crimes, with dishing out illegal logging permits to finance a forthcoming re-election campaign. Under the country’s political decentralisation in 2001, generally considered to be good for democracy, the power to regulate land use passed from Jakarta to regional and often district-level politicians. They have often abused this authority to raise money.

Much of the area now burning in Riau is peat wetland, almost all that’s left after years of rampant deforestation. Peat, which can go down to a depth of 30m in Sumatra, is highly combustible, even many metres down. A fire doused on the surface might smoulder underground long after. It is illegal to burn peat for commercial development. But as the past few weeks have proved, the law is not enough. And, ominously for those hoping for clear skies and clean air, a lot of peat is left.

South-East Asia’s smog: Unspontaneous combustion, Economist, June 29, 2013, at 39