Low risk of severe haze from Indonesia this year: Singapore Institute of International Affairs

Singapore last experienced haze in September 2019, with air quality entering unhealthy levels on some days then. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - There is a low risk of severe haze originating from forest fires in Indonesia this year, a local think-tank has assessed.

The report by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) released on Thursday (June 24) said this was due to a confluence of factors.

These include improved land management policies by the Indonesian government, projected weather conditions and the growing recognition among the authorities there that the carbon-rich peatlands and forests in the country could be a source of carbon credits.

This means there is now a business case for the conservation of these natural habitats - they no longer need to be drained and felled for oil palm or pulp and paper plantations in order for the land to reap economic gains.

Peatlands are carbon-rich habitats that are naturally waterlogged. But for the land to be used to grow cash crops, they need to be drained - increasing the risk of fire and releasing lots of carbon into the atmosphere.

On a scale of green, amber and red - with green being low risk and red being high - the 2021 haze outlook is green for the first time, said SIIA chairman Simon Tay in the report's foreword. In 2019 and last year, the haze outlook was amber.

Associate Professor Tay said credit must be given to the Indonesian authorities, who have rolled out a raft of reforms and new policies to meet the challenge of forest fires and haze.

For instance, last December, the Indonesian government renewed the operating mandate of the Peatland Restoration Agency and expanded its responsibilities to include mangrove areas.

Like peatlands, mangroves are waterlogged habitats and also a rich source of carbon.

Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan had last November also pointed to Indonesia's potential to become a "carbon-credit superpower" due to the carbon sequestration potential from its forest and mangrove resources.

Carbon sequestration refers to the ability of natural habitats to soak up planet-warming carbon dioxide.

The SIIA report also said Indonesia is in the process of creating a national framework for carbon trading. "In so doing, the Indonesian government not only recognises the risk of the haze and fires, but is seeking to shift that risk into positive opportunities for conservation, carbon management and investment," said the report.

But Prof Tay cautioned during the virtual launch of the report on Thursday that the assessment was for severe transboundary haze - there might still be fires in Indonesia and some haze during the upcoming dry season.

Singapore last experienced haze in September 2019, with air quality entering unhealthy levels on some days then. There was no haze experienced in 2020, which was a La Nina year. This refers to the climate phenomenon which brings wetter weather to this region.

Singapore last experienced haze in September 2019, with air quality entering unhealthy levels on some days then. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

This year started off with wetter-than-usual conditions, likely due to the influence of La Nina, the report noted.

While the dry season usually kicks in between June and September, the report said the projection this year is that it would not be unusually so - meaning no elevated risk of fires.

In 2019, for instance, the dry conditions were worsened by another climate phenomenon known as the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole, which causes drier-than-usual weather here.

Finally, the report also assessed how farmers could respond to the rising prices of agricultural commodities such as oil palm.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the global supply of such commodities decreased, while demand remained stable, resulting in a price increase.

But the report noted that it is not immediately clear how the price increase will influence the behaviour of farmers.

Large agricultural companies are unlikely to respond to immediate market shifts, while small holders, though observed to have stepped up planting, are doing so on existing farmland, reducing the need to clear forests.

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