The Cost of Indonesia’s 2015 Fires

Indonesian forest fires, fanned by an extended drought associated with El Nino, delivered more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than the entire European Union, an astounding 11.3 million tonnes per day against 8.9 million tonnes for the EU, according to a new study.

The study, written by nine climate scientists from Kings College London in collaboration with the Center for International Forestry Research and published in the journal Scientific Reports, examined burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which released a total of 857 million tonnes into the atmosphere from September to October, some 97 percent of all the country’s emissions over the period.

Two million hectares of forest went up in smoke last year, with dozens of people killed and smoke blanketing Southeast Asia from Singapore to Cambodia to Vietnam and the Philippines. The fires are estimated to have cost billions of dollars worth of damage.

The report, written in extremely dense technical language, concludes that “Our fire carbon emission estimate for September-October 2015 represents the largest seen over the Maritime southeast Asia region since 1997, but still it is only a quarter of the most recent estimate for the September-October period of that El Niño year.” Apparently many of the burned areas had been burned before, consuming less fuel per unit area.

There appears to be little letup. According to the Straits Times of Singapore, almost 300 new hot spots were detected in Sumatra and Kalimantan just this week that were due to forest and land fires as burning continues for land-clearing to plant crops such as oil palm and pulpwood for paper production. Greenpeace reported 15,112 such hotspots in 2013. Although the country is one of the world’s most important “green lungs,” less than half the land on Indonesia’s 17,000-plus islands remains in forest. Deforestation has surpassed the devastation in Brazil as Brazilians have sought to control cutting in the Amazon basin.

The drought last year caused the worst haze over Southeast Asia since a similar El Nino-generated situation in 1997, spurring President Joko Widodo to fly to Kalimantan to declare a moratorium on licenses issued for peatland development and called for peat forests, which act as carbon sinks, to be restored. But, as the country prepares for a new fire season, it appears that Jokowi’s call, like those of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are likely to be ignored.

The fires have enraged the Singapore government, which has demanded for years that Indonesia do something about the problem. Air quality was so bad in Singapore at the height of the fires that there were fears the Singapore Formula I race might have to be cancelled because of a lack of visibility for the racers, which can hit up to 300 kilometers per hour. Thousands of people were sickened by the haze.

Singaporean authorities are so incensed by the environmental damage that Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia, Anil Kumar Nayar, told Agence France Press last week that the Singapore government has served notice on six Indonesian companies it believes cleared large amounts of land by burning, although others could be charged as well.

Singapore argues that international rules allow states to take action—even if harm is being caused by activities outside its jurisdiction, according to the AFP story, although the government in Jakarta has questioned how it would be possible for the Singapore government to prosecute Indonesian citizens since there is no ratified extradition treaty between the two countries. An extradition treaty has been stalled for decades by both countries over hundreds of millions of illegal funds deposited in Singapore banks by corrupt Indonesian officials.

Indonesian officials have largely ignored Singaporean demands for information on the companies linked to the blazes. In May, Environment Minister Siti Nurbay Bakar said she would review her ministry’s cooperation on environmental issues, but went no further. “Singapore cannot step further into Indonesia’s legal domain,” Bakar told reporters in June. Her spokesman declined to comment further on the matter when contacted.

Nayar reiterated that Singapore wasn’t crossing any line pursuing these companies and was within its rights to enforce its law, according to AFP. “We are not doing something that is extraordinary. It is not targeting any country, or anybody’s sovereignty,” he said.

The law threatens local and foreign firms with fines of up to $100,000 Singaporean dollars (US$74,000) for every day Singapore endures unhealthy haze pollution.

So far just two of the companies have responded to the court order, Nayar said, without naming specific firms.

That has left Singapore seeking other means to find information on the offending companies.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has an agreement to create a haze-free region by 2020, though it took 14 years to be fully ratified.