Stopping fires and cross-border haze in Southeast Asia

This article was first published in the forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, from 22 April 2024 to 28 April 2024.

Large-scale land and forest fires regularly affect between 30 million hectares and 50 million hectares of land in Southeast Asia. These fires can create smoke clouds that can cover hundreds of millions of hectares at a time and last for months, resulting in cross-border haze that can be severe in parts of all 10 ASEAN Member States (AMS). It is having a great influence. As a result, over the past 25 years, the ASEAN region has experienced hundreds of billions of US dollars in economic losses, along with huge social costs and environmental impacts. Furthermore, fires and associated ecosystem degradation in ASEAN are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the land-use sector in the world. This degradation is also associated with severe loss of biodiversity and important ecosystems in the region.

The main causes of land degradation, fire and greenhouse gas emissions vary across regions in ASEAN. In southern ASEAN, large-scale drainage of peatlands for tree crops, palm oil production and timber extraction has left more than 15 million hectares of peatland vulnerable, with more than 5 million hectares repeatedly burned in the past two decades. ing. Furthermore, up to 90% of transboundary haze in southern ASEAN is thought to be due to peatland fires. In northern ASEAN, land clearing to grow rice, sugarcane and maize crops and the associated burning of agricultural residues (waste) generate fires and emissions.

These challenges are further exacerbated by climate change, including projected increases in temperature, decreased precipitation during the dry season, and intensified drought processes due to El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole, all of which will lead to more severe land and forest degradation and fires. The current El Niño drought affecting Southeast Asia has resulted in a significant increase in forest fires in many countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and northern ASEAN.

Over the years, fires have destroyed tens of millions of hectares of forests and peatlands in ASEAN, more than 100 million people have been adversely affected by smoke clouds, and millions of premature deaths have been recorded. Fires and haze are causing disruption to agriculture, tourism, transportation and other sectors. The economic impact is estimated at up to USD 28 billion in one year (2015) in Indonesia alone.

Forests, peatlands and land fires are major sources of GHG (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) emissions. The burning of peatlands, forests, and agriculture is also a major source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, which is a significant short-lived climate contributor with a warming impact 460 to 1,500 times stronger than CO2 per unit mass. It is also a variable factor (SLCF). Therefore, reducing forest and peatland fires and agricultural burning would have a significant impact on reducing GHG emissions and global climate change.

In response, AMS has adopted a number of initiatives, including the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) signed in 2002, firstly from 2006 to 2020, and then from 2023 to 2030. We developed plans and mechanisms. The ASEAN Haze-Free Roadmap first runs from 2016 to 2020 and then from 2023 to 2030. Malaysia has also developed a National Haze Action Plan and is currently finalizing a master plan for the management of fire-prone peatlands in Malaysia.

Implementing these plans will require a multi-stakeholder, multi-country approach. This is especially important because supply chains for goods cross borders and fires and fog disrupt local economies and health. Solutions are many, but the challenge is to develop them at sufficient scale in an integrated manner, across a wide range of locations, with the involvement of various sectors and stakeholders (including government, local communities, and the private sector). It is about creating the resources and capacity to act. and civil society).

In January 2022, ASEAN Deputy Secretary-General Ekapabu Phanthabong stated that “the challenge of transnational fog in ASEAN can be better addressed with higher levels of commitment and investment from all stakeholders.” “There is a gender,” he pointed out.

To address this challenge, the Global Environment Center (GEC), with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the ASEAN Secretariat’s ASEAN Investment Framework for Haze-Free and Sustainable Land Management (AIF- We have actively supported the development of HFSLM. ). Through this framework, ASEAN will build multi-stakeholder partnerships at the regional level to eliminate large-scale burning of forests, peatlands and agricultural residues through socially and economically viable alternatives between 2023 and 2030. The aim is to increase the availability of resources to prevent such attacks. AIF-HFSLM was formally approved by Asean in August 2023, with the initial goal of leveraging US$1.5 billion (RM7.17 billion) in funding by 2030.

The private sector can play a major role in stopping fires and haze from crossing borders. The oil palm sector has already taken action to stop fires in and around oil palm plantations. This relates to efforts to halt both deforestation and further exploitation of peatlands. This, combined with strong action by the Indonesian government, has led to a significant reduction in transboundary fog in southern ASEAN over the past five years. A similar approach is needed for sugarcane, rice and corn commodity supply chains to stop the burning of so-called crop waste, which can be recycled as organic fertilizer using circular economy approaches, or recycled into bioplastics and other bioproducts. need to be converted to . The private sector should also invest in new technologies for agricultural waste utilization and launch carbon financing projects to protect and restore forests and peatlands to prevent fires and reduce emissions. Consumers should also support the purchase of “haze-free” products by purchasing products that are certified sustainable and grown without the use of fire.

To overcome this challenge, Malaysia needs to work collaboratively with its ASEAN neighbors, effectively engaging the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders. Success requires a “whole of society” approach. The Malaysian government needs to strengthen regulations to prevent peatland and forest fires and promote or encourage better involvement of the private sector and local communities.

Diocese Faisal is the director of the Global Environment Center. He has spent over 40 years working in environmental protection and management, primarily in his ASEAN region, of which over 25 years have focused on peatland protection and management and transboundary haze prevention.

This column is part of a series coordinated by Climate Governance Malaysia, the national branch of the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance Initiative. The CGI is an initiative to help boards meet their duty of care as long-term stewards of the companies they oversee, and in particular to ensure that climate risks and opportunities are appropriately addressed.

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