Golfers to Indiana Jones Choke on Sumatra Smog: Carbon & Climate

Apr 03, 2014 8:30 am ET

April 3 (Bloomberg) -- As smoke from Indonesia’s burning forests drifted across the Strait of Malacca into Singapore last June, the pollution index shot up and Ong Eng Tong’s golf course shut down.

“Once the PSI reaches 150 or 200, they have to close,” said Ong, a 71-year-old independent energy consultant. His Singapore Island Country Club was overwhelmed as the Pollutant Standards Index surged on June 21 to a record 401, a “hazardous” reading in a city averaging less than 50 on most days. “I stayed indoors and turned on the air-con.”

This year may be worse, stoked by drought and El Nino. Backed by activists including Harrison Ford, Singapore is pushing fines for culprits overseas. Even Indonesia is faulting last month’s local response to blazes that sickened 50,000 in Sumatra, where fires are set to turn forests into crop fields. Burning in the region’s peatlands emitted as much greenhouse gases as 89 million cars, according to the Center for International Forestry Research.

The unrelenting fires are preventing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from keeping his 2009 promise to cut Indonesia’s greenhouse gases by 26 percent. The government has yet to release data on emissions for any year since Yudhoyono started his second term, and Indonesia would be the last member to ratify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreement on trans-boundary haze.

“Deforestation creates more carbon pollution than all of the cars, trains and planes in the world combined, making Indonesia and Brazil the world’s third- and fourth-largest emitters after the U.S. and China,” according to Jeff Horowitz, the Berkeley, California-based founder of the non-profit Avoided Deforestation Partners.

Indiana Jones

Horowitz co-produced “Years of Living Dangerously,” a documentary scheduled to air on U.S. TV this month featuring Harrison Ford’s visit to rainforests in Sumatra and Borneo. The U.S. actor known for playing Indiana Jones was threatened with deportation after confronting Indonesia’s forestry minister about illegal logging.

The increase in Indonesia’s forest depletion was almost 400 square miles a year from 2000 to 2012, according to a paper published last year by Matthew C. Hansen, a University of Maryland professor who uses NASA data to monitor deforestation. The losses increased at the world’s fastest rate over the last decade, he said.

Indonesia’s peatlands are “basically young coal” and just as toxic when ignited by arson or spontaneous combustion, Agus Purnomo, Yudhoyono’s climate-change specialist, said in an interview last month. The government has extended a moratorium on new permits to develop peatlands and forests until 2015 as part of a $1 billion aid commitment from Norway. Indonesia is now working to define peatlands and who is responsible for managing them, Purnomo said.

Hazardous Smoke

Yudhoyono announced March 14 he would fly into Sumatra’s Riau province, a center of this year’s fire crisis and Indonesia’s booming palm oil business. While local government declared a state of emergency and charged 37 suspects with burning, he threatened to take over, posting on Twitter that “the results haven’t been satisfactory.”

The day before Yudhoyono arrived, Togar Manurung fled Pekanbaru, Riau’s capital, with his wife, child, and eight other families.

“Last year we had haze, but we didn’t have to leave the city,” said Manurung, a 33-year-old pastor wearing a face mask even in his air-conditioned Mawar Sharon Church. The PSI reached 500 -- 200 over the “hazardous” mark -- the day Manurung’s group drove about five hours into the hills.

Air pollution killed 7 million people in 2012, more than AIDS, diabetes and road injuries combined, posing the world’s largest environmental health risk, the World Health Organization said in a report last month. One in eight deaths worldwide can be attributed to tainted air, it said.

Neighbors, Critics

Neighboring nations and conservationists are critical of Indonesia’s efforts and commitment. The president steps down after elections in July, and leading contenders to replace him rarely mention fires or climate targets. Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and ex-army general Prabowo Subianto have focused on lifting Indonesians’s incomes.

“If the future government decides to open up forests, the 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions won’t be achieved,” Purnomo said. Palm oil rose to a record 2,885 ringgit ($878) a metric ton last month and settled today at 2,634 a ton in Kuala Lumpur.

Singapore says Indonesia is failing to identify culprits. Jakarta hasn’t responded to requests for maps to pinpoint who controls lands where fires are burning, Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s environment minister, said in a March speech to parliament.

Sumatra had more than 3,100 hot spots indicating fires from Feb. 20 to March 11, 17 percent more than last June’s peak, according to World Resources Institute, which has teamed with Google Inc. to monitor NASA satellite data.

Fire Alerts

“Almost half of the fire alerts fall within timber, palm oil and logging concessions,” said Nigel Sizer, global director of forests at the Washington-based environmental policy group. “Closer investigation on the ground by Indonesian authorities is needed to determine whether companies have broken strict laws that limit burning.”

Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., the pulp and paper maker with offices in Jakarta and Singapore, is among companies named by WRI as controlling lands where fires were burning. The company, which has 600 fire fighters, 200 more than last year, said it’s a victim.

“Wood is a raw material for us,” Praveen Singhavi, APRIL’s president, told reporters last month. “We would not burn our raw material. These fires are caused by land-clearing activity by small land holders and the community.”

Immigrants are burning unmapped land to stake claims, said Gary Paoli, a director at Daemeter, a Java-based consultant on sustainable development. The forest ministry controls less land after a landmark ruling last year that forests belong to local communities, he said.

El Nino

“There’s a perfect storm in Sumatra,” Paoli said in interview today. “The insecurity of land tenure and lack of enforcement are leading many actors, including some companies and communities, to use fire to clear land, and so much of the undeveloped land is peat.”

Favorable winds this year have shielded Singapore from the early start to Sumatra’s fire season, Balakrishnan said. The city should still prepare for unhealthy air as the El Nino weather pattern extends a regional drought and the winds shift.

Singapore’s parliament is expected to vote this year on a law allowing fines of as much as $357,000 for local or foreign firms linked to burning, Balakrishnan said.

It’s a good first step, Simon Tay, former chairman of Singapore’s National Environment Agency, said in an interview.

“While the fine is not that large, it would trigger consumers or large purchases of palm oil or pulp paper to re- look at their relationships,” Tay said. “The people at the Singapore Stock Exchange might think of banning them.”

--With assistance from Ann Koh and Jasmine Ng in Singapore.