A strong signal to tackle haze menace

LAST week, Singapore put up a proposed Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill for public consultation. The proposed legislation was immediately cheered by legal experts and environment groups. But the devil will be in the details.

The new law, which will be administered by the National Environment Agency, provides for both criminal and civil liability.

Companies and other entities that have fires on their land that produce transboundary haze in Singapore will be deemed to have committed an offence.

They can be fined up to $300,000 for having fires on land they own or manage. Ignoring requests to take action involves an additional fine of up to $150,000.

The law will also allow those affected by haze to bring civil suits against such companies. So for instance, a construction firm that has to stop work could theoretically sue for damages.

The new Bill comes with conditions. Haze here would have to linger for 24 hours or more, with air quality poorer than "as may be prescribed". No range is stipulated in the draft legislation, but it is likely to involve a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading above 100, a level the National Environment Agency regards as signalling unhealthy air.

The Bill comes after Singapore experienced its worst-ever bout of haze last June, when the 24-hour PSI hit a record 246.

Green activists and legal experts agree the proposed Bill looks promising, at least as a strong signal to errant firms overseas that they will be held responsible for causing transboundary haze pollution here.

Singapore Environment Council executive director Jose Raymond said the legislation "should serve as a strong deterrent to companies which continue to not just damage the environment with their slash-and-burn tactics, but whose actions are a threat to human health and lives".

 

Unusual legislation

THE Bill is unusual for several reasons.

•First, it deals purely with transboundary transgressions, that is, offences in other countries that have an impact on Singapore. •Second, while there are other transboundary conventions like a United States-Canada transboundary air quality agreement, those tend to govern countries rather than commercial entities. •Third, the Bill applies to non-Singaporeans. Other extraterritorial laws apply only to the conduct of Singapore citizens overseas. Those who pay bribes or engage in child sex tourism overseas can be prosecuted under Singapore corruption or child-sex laws.

Under the proposed haze law, however, it is the representatives of firms outside Singapore - who may be foreigners - who are liable. The law allows them to be served notice when they step into Singapore.

Two firms based here, palm oil firm Golden Agri-Resources and pulp and paper giant Asia Pacific International (April), were among companies implicated by Indonesian officials in last year's haze. Both companies have denied the allegations.

Golden Agri-Resources and paper giant April, like most large firms, have zero-burning policies.

Although they are a potential target of the new law, in fact companies welcome it. Public pressure has pushed many companies to increase their sustainability commitments.

Palm oil trader Wilmar has pledged to stop buying crude palm oil from suppliers who clear land by illegal burning. Pulp and paper firm APP is developing and implementing its forest conservation policy with help from independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Greenpeace and The Forest Trust.

Indonesia's Riau declares State of Emergency over haze

 

Enforcement issues

WHILE theoretically promising, analysts say the law will be difficult to enforce.

Even when countries sign agreements, these can be of limited impact. There is an ASEAN agreement on haze, but Indonesia, the site of so many fires, has not yet ratified it and so is not bound by it. Yesterday, the PSI in Dumai, in the Riau province north-west of Singapore, hit a hazardous 776 due to open burning and dry weather.

Having a transboundary haze pollution law can nevertheless act as an additional spur to Singapore's neighbours to step up enforcement.

Indonesian authorities face strong domestic pressures too to take steps to prevent the haze which hits its own citizens hardest. To be fair to Indonesia, open slash-and-burn land clearing is illegal. But the laws have not been well enforced until recently.

In January, the Kallista Alam palm oil firm was ordered by an Indonesian court to pay 366 billion rupiah (S$40 million) for illegally clearing and burning part of the protected Tripa peat swamp forest in Aceh. Indonesia's Environment Ministry is pursuing three other companies for environmental destruction.

With the Singapore law in place, one practical question that arises is: How much manpower and resources is Singapore willing to devote to investigate and prosecute firms under the new law? Companies cited may well say they do not use fires to clear land.

Here, technology aids can help. Free public tools like the World Resources Institute's new Global Forest Watch website, which combines real-time fire alerts with forest concession maps and other data, can provide evidence of burning - not just to governments but also to the firms themselves, to better monitor suppliers and subcontractors.

But ground-level investigations will still have to be carried out. Indonesia's government and local NGOs could help provide information, but may be hampered by a lack of resources.

This highlights the need for Singapore to work with the Indonesian authorities on haze enforcement cooperation. As environmental law professor Laode Syarif at South Sulawesi's Hasanuddin University suggested, Singaporean officials may have to be given permission to go to Indonesia to collect evidence.

 

Other measures

WHILE the proposed law sends a strong signal to firms of Singapore's intent to tackle the haze menace, it can only be one pillar of the anti-haze strategy.

There are other steps to consider that go beyond the courts. After all, the root cause of burning, as Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted in a Facebook post last week, is commercial. "Errant companies have been clearing land by illegal burning because it is the cheapest way to do so," he wrote.

So, why not hit billion-dollar firms where it hurts?

Singapore can consider adopting a haze-free or deforestation-free public procurement policy. It would not be the first government to adopt a sustainable procurement policy. The Hong Kong government last year dropped shark's fin and bluefin tuna - both endangered top predators - from official menus as a statement on sustainable consumption habits. And the private sector is already laying the groundwork to make such policies easier to implement: Nestle committed to a zerodeforestation policy in 2010, while Unilever pledged to buy all its palm oil from traceable sources by 2020.

It would be a short step from there to cut haze out of the gallons of hand soap and reams of paper, say, that go through government offices each year. Currently, there is no explicit set of sustainability guidelines in public procurement, aside from the fundamental principles of transparency, open competition and value for money.

Beyond public procurement, there is also the lever of public investment and divestment, insofar as sovereign wealth funds here investing in commodities and agriculture. CTP Holdings, which has oil palm plantations in South Sumatra for example, is a joint venture between Cargill, which has a 70 per cent stake, and Temasek, which has 30 per cent.

As a joint venture partner, Temasek can keep partner firms on their toes about preventing burning and deforestation.

Apart from managing risks, Singapore's sovereign wealth funds do not appear to have ethical or sustainable investment guidelines, at least going by a look at their websites. In this, Norway's government pension funds lead: its global pension fund has divested from tobacco producers and nuclear-arms firms, for instance.

Ultimately, the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill would be just one pillar of Singapore's haze prevention efforts.

It should complement other measures, such as international cooperation in fire prevention and training for enforcement officials, or showcasing positive examples of companies that have switched to other land-clearing methods.

Whether in the courtroom, in the Riau province on the ground, or in the corporate boardroom, Singapore can be savvy in using different tools to tackle the haze.

In the end, all the measures will be judged by just one thing: Do the skies remain clear and haze-free throughout the year?

caiwj@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.