Depoliticising Southeast Asia’s forest fire pollution

Depoliticising Southeast Asia’s forest fire pollution

Authors: Jayaprakash Murulitharan, University of Cambridge and Matthew Ashfold, University of Nottingham Malaysia

The almost annual haze in southern Southeast Asia originates from both natural and anthropogenic forest fires in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Forests are cleared for small-scale and commercial agriculture, which is often linked to key economic sectors like oil palm and pulpwood.

The ‘slash and burn’ method is a cheap and quick way to prepare land for cultivation. If done on peatlands, this method involves drainage, making the area extremely fire-prone. Carbon-rich peat fires often extend underground where they are hard to control. Regional hot and dry weather patterns prolong the fires and transport smoke haze across borders.

The 2015 Southeast Asia haze was estimated to have caused between 40,000 and 100,000 deaths across the region. While the 2019 episode was less severe, the World Bank estimates that Indonesia — where most of the fires originate — suffered US$5.2 billion in agriculture, industry, trade, tourism, transportation and environmental sector losses.

ASEAN began to acknowledge haze as a regional concern in 1985 with the Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which specifically referenced air pollution and ‘transfrontier environmental effects’.

Following the 1997–98 haze event, the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) — committing ASEAN member states to combat sources of haze — was established. Despite its legally binding status, the agreement was watered-down during the negotiation process. In the ASEAN spirit of non-confrontation, it does not contain any enforcement or dispute resolution mechanisms and it only came into full effect in 2014 with Indonesia’s ratification.

Article 17 of the AATHP stipulates that member states should ‘support scientific and technical research programmes’ related to transboundary haze pollution, but no member state has operationalised any such program beyond basic knowledge-sharing.

One way to operationalise Article 17 would be to create an ASEAN Panel of Technical and Scientific Experts that would address two sticking points in regional haze cooperation: data validity and establishing the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control.

Under the current framework, member states coordinate information and policy on transboundary haze at the ministerial-level Conference of the Parties (COP) to the AATHP, the Committee (COM) under the COP to the AATHP, and ministerial sub-regional committees supported by technical working groups.

Member states individually present their technical findings at the working group meetings before COM/COP and ministerial sub-regional committee meetings. While this often highlights member states’ different meteorological capabilities, it also results in prolonged debates over the validity of each country’s data. For example, the current country-based situation report mechanisms lead to disputes over satellite ‘hotspot’ (thermal anomaly possibly indicating fire) validity and ground-truthing.

The proposed panel could draw inspiration from the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, in which assessment panels provide technical information to the parties involved. Their reports reflect up-to-date scientific findings and include consensus statements on the quality and consistency of data sources. The panel could evaluate on-the-ground and satellite-based information on fires, land use, regional transport and the distribution of haze pollution.

Scientists from all member states should be represented in the ASEAN panel. The Montreal Protocol and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that experts can contribute to a scientific consensus independent of their home country’s views.

The panel would report its consensus at working group, COP and ministerial sub-regional committee meetings. While previous diplomatic flashpoints were a consequence of centralising regional meteorological capabilities with one member state, a consensus approach would alleviate such concerns. The panel’s report could replace individual technical findings, which could help to focus discussions on prevention, mitigation and adaptation.

This approach would address member states’ different meteorological capabilities while enhancing evidence-based support for a joint emergency response. It may also push member states to make more data available, move forward on a region-wide common air-quality indicator and encourage more collaboration within the ASEAN scientific community toward addressing remaining ‘unknowns’ on haze.

Article 5 of the AATHP calls for the establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control to facilitate cooperation on haze pollution arising from land and forest fires. But drawn-out negotiations have delayed its establishment.

The interim functions of such a centre are shared by the ASEAN Secretariat Environment Division and the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC). A dedicated coordinating centre with an independent secretariat could better guide the COP and MSC meetings, support projects in member states to combat forest fires, open burning and peatland management, and coordinate a joint emergency response.

But uncertainty about the role of the ASMC data moving forward remains an issue. The Regional Haze Action Plan 1997 designated the ASMC as the regional centre to monitor and assess land and forest fires and provide early warnings on haze. But the lack of consensus over member states’ meteorological datasets has led to disputes over the validity of ASMC data. To prevent this from delaying the operationalisation of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre, the proposed panel could temporarily take on the ASMC’s regional haze monitoring and assessment role.

The 2016 ASEAN roadmap on transboundary haze presented a vision of a haze-free ASEAN by 2020. While there was localised haze in 2020, wetter La Niña conditions and depressed economic activity prevented a serious transboundary event. But limited advancements on the ground and at the ASEAN level cast doubt on whether the roadmap has achieved its goal.

Mechanisms already exist through which ASEAN can depoliticise science and achieve more effective haze mitigation. Supporting scientific and technical research programmes and establishing an ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control will help allay some of the diplomatic concerns among ASEAN member states and encourage them to better manage their region’s haze problem.

Jayaprakash Murulitharan is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Matthew Ashfold is Head of the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.