Asean leaders must show the will to tackle haze

Poor visibility in Klang Valley, Malaysia.

SINGAPORE - A thick haze has descended over the debate about just how to tackle the acrid smoke heading our way from Sumatra. It casts a pall on the readiness of Asean countries to come together to tackle pressing environmental challenges.

With almost childlike innocence, Indonesian minister Agung Laksono has chided Singaporeans for "behaving like a child, making all this noise" about the choking haze.

To add fuel to fire, he suggested that Singaporeans should instead be thankful to Indonesia for the clean air they enjoyed most of the time. Rather than make a fuss over the haze, they should offer dollops of cash to clean up the pollution, he suggested.

Other Indonesian officials have been quick to finger Malaysian and Singapore companies with plantations in Sumatra for being responsible for the haze. These companies are being investigated, they say, including two with some links to Singapore firms.

These are Jakarta-based Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology and Asia Pacific Resources International, which are said to have plantations within the area where the hot spots are to be found.

It is good that some of the companies which are allegedly responsible have been identified.

But let's clear the air on one thing: It does not matter who owns these firms, or what nationality they are. If indeed they are responsible for illegal burning at plantations on Indonesian territory, then Jakarta would have every right - and responsibility - to take action against them for the environmental damage they have caused.

Singaporeans and Malaysians, and just about everyone else on the planet, would cheer such action.

Little wonder then that several companies in the oil palm sector have been quick to declare that they have "zero burn" policies. That is well and good.

But it is not quite enough. To be meaningful, they will have to ensure that these are strictly enforced on their contractors and sub-contractors right down their supply chain.

To make this happen, they will have to offer contracts which give operators on the ground every incentive to comply, paying for more costly methods of clearing land and sustainable farming practices, and penalising those who don't by dropping them as partners.

None of this will be cost-free. But just as these firms have enjoyed tidy profits from their plantations, they must be ready to make the investments required to ensure that any externalities, or social side effects, from their operations are properly addressed and accounted for.

This is where you and I come in, because companies are not going to do this as charity, but only if it affects their bottom line. They will move quickly to do so if they realise that being seen to be a forest burner or having partners who are polluters tarnishes their international reputations, and hits their business.

This is precisely what happened to one of the companies that has been fingered - Sinar Mas.

In 2010, protesters from the environmental group Greenpeace dressed as orang utans demonstrated outside the Nestle factory in York and scaled down the walls of its headquarters in London.

They were protesting against the food and beverage giant's use of palm oil allegedly bought from Sinar Mas, which they said destroyed the rainforest in Indonesia, killing orang utans in the process.

Greenpeace charged that Nestle used this palm oil in some of its products, such as the popular chocolate snack, Kit Kat. It took out parody television commercials of a clueless office worker chomping into a Kit Kat, which turned out to be an orang utan's bleeding finger.

"Have a break. Give the orang utans a break," it cried, playing on the confectionery's marketing tagline. The video went viral around the world.

Greenpeace also charged that burning forests on peatlands resulted in vast amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, thereby contributing to global warming.

The campaign went down like a plantation on fire, drawing much attention in the media and among consumers. Nestle moved quickly to make clear that it had nothing to do with Sinar Mas, and demanded that its suppliers and partners do so too.

So, if you feel you need a break from the haze, check out the website of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international organisation which monitors and promotes the sustainable farming of oil palm.

Its website includes a list of products - from soap to candles and cooking oil - which are made using palm oil produced in an environmentally sound fashion.

But let's be honest about it: Sustainable farming practices come with costs. We need to ask ourselves this: If you saw two soaps (made using palm oil), one of which carries the RSPO label but which costs a bit more, which would you buy?

If we simply opt for the cheapest option every time, then we can hardly point fingers at the poor farmer in Dumai, ground zero of the current fires, who resorts to using the cheapest method he knows to clear his land.

If we are to tackle the haze, all of us - consumers, commercial players and governments - are going to have to play a part, rewarding companies which adopt environmentally sound practices, and punishing those which don't.

Unfortunately, the response so far from Asean's leaders to the haze does not augur well for their ability, or willingness, to take the decisive measures that will be needed to address the environmental challenges that the region faces.

If they are so lackadaisical in confronting the haze, which you can see and smell, how will they muster the political will to address the looming environmental challenge of colourless and odourless greenhouse gas emissions and climate change which, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank, threatens South-east Asian countries more than most others?

Countries in our region will be hit hard by rising temperatures and sea levels since many have long coastlines and rely heavily on agriculture and fishing to feed their people. High levels of poverty and incidence of tropical diseases will compound their problems.

Indeed, a World Bank report released last week named Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City as hot spots which will bear the brunt of flooding from rising sea levels and more intense tropical storms in the years ahead.

Writing about the global effort to tackle carbon dioxide emissions, which passed the headline-grabbing 400 parts per million threshold for the first time in 4.5 million years recently, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf said glumly: "All the discussions of mitigating the risks of catastrophic climate change have turned out to be empty words. The more one thinks about the challenge, the more impossible it is to envisage effective action.

"We will, instead, watch the rise in global concentrations of greenhouse gases. If it turns out to lead to a disaster, it will by then be far too late to do anything much about it."

Sadly, the world looking on at Asean's efforts to tackle not just the longer-term challenge of rising sea levels but also the more immediate one of haze pollution year in and year out might come to the same sorry conclusion.