Written reply by Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, to Parliamentary Question on Transboundary Haze on 7 October 2019

  • Oct 07, 2019
  • MEWR

Questions:

Ms Joan Pereira: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) what measures will be implemented to help Singaporeans and residents cope with the worsening haze and air pollution; and (b) whether these measures will include the installation of air filter equipment in places frequented by the public, distribution of masks and public education on ways to minimise the impact on health.

Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) how successful has the 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act been in mitigating the annual threat of haze; (b) to date, how many successful cases have been investigated under the Act; (c) how many cases are currently under investigation; and (d) whether our neighbouring countries have been cooperative in providing assistance for investigation requests.

Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in view of public feedback on the perceived "inaccuracies" of the 24-hr Pollutant Standards Index forecast currently used by NEA, whether the Ministry will consider adopting the hourly Air Quality Index now cast alongside the 1-hour PM2.5 concentration readings to assuage public concerns

Mr Charles Chong: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources what is the number of companies and individuals who have been investigated and prosecuted under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act since commencement of the Act in 2014.

Mr Murali Pillai: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) what steps has Singapore taken to promote the sustainable production of palm oil, pulp, paper and other commodities from plantations so as to disincentivise plantation owners and farmers from using the slash and burn method of clearing land that causes transboundary haze; and (b) what is the Ministry's assessment of the effectiveness of these steps.

Mr Murali Pillai: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources what steps have been identified to overcome the difficulty of gathering evidence against entities believed to have caused transboundary haze in contravention of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014.

Miss Cheng Li Hui: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources whether there are plans for the Government, businesses and the community to work hand-in-hand to distribute N95 masks to low-income and vulnerable seniors when the Pollutant Standards Index readings hits very unhealthy or hazardous levels.

Mr Christopher de Souza: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources what can Singapore do to make it commercially unviable for companies in the region to operate slash and burn tactics for clearing of land.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in light of the haze recurrence (a) whether measures and action plans implemented previously to help our neighbours are no longer effective; and (b) what is the action plan moving forward to help our neighbours prevent or reduce the hot spots for the long term.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources whether NEA is able to identify any land owners in Indonesia who are responsible for the burning of forest land that causes haze and whether any prosecution action will be taken against these land owners.

Ms Foo Mee Har: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) how the cost of haze pollution to Singapore can be estimated; and (b) what are the Government's estimates of previous years' cost impact arising from haze pollution on health, education and business.

Ms Foo Mee Har: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) how effective has the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 been in holding companies and individuals accountable for causing haze pollution; and (b) what is the number of perpetrators who have been prosecuted under the Act.

Er Dr Lee Bee Wah: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) what are the haze assistance efforts extended to Indonesia this year; (b) how much of the assistance efforts have been accepted; and (c) what are the long-term collaboration plans with leaders in the region to mitigate transboundary haze.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources how can the Government minimise and manage the impact of haze on the public and the Government's policy in the distribution of the national stockpile of N95 masks.

Assoc Prof Walter Theseira: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) whether and to what extent the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act has been effective at addressing transboundary haze; (b) what is the progress on existing investigations under the Act of the 4 firms linked to the 2015 haze; and (c) whether the Ministry will consider strengthening the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act with financial incentives for whistleblowers who contribute substantially to the identification and prosecution of entities contributing to haze pollution.

Prof Lim Sun Sun: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources why there have been no prosecutions to date under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 despite the ample legal and evidentiary mechanisms available under the Act.

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources whether he can provide an update on (i) the outlook for haze affecting Singapore in the months ahead; (ii) diplomatic efforts to mitigate haze generation in Indonesia; and (iii) domestic efforts to mitigate the public health impact.  

Ms Sylvia Lim: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources how has the enactment of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 enhanced Singapore's response to transboundary haze pollution.

Ms Sylvia Lim: To ask the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (a) what are the considerations behind NEA's decision to report air quality based on 24-hour PSI and 1-hour PM 2.5 readings; and (b) what is the Government's assessment of the utility of the above readings to the population vis-a-vis other indices or measures.

 Answer by Minister:

1.            Haze has affected ASEAN for years. It has been a perennaprial scourge in our region, affecting millions of people. Haze pollutes the air we breathe and sets back global efforts in tackling climate change. The 2015 fires in Indonesia generated nearly 1 gigatonne of carbon dioxide; more than half of the 1.5 gigatonne that was saved from the increased use of renewable energy by the whole world for that year. A study by Professor Euston Quah and Associate Professor Chia Wai Mun from Nanyang Technological University estimated that the cost to Singapore of the 2-month long 2015 haze episode was $1.83 billion or 0.45% of our GDP, taking into account factors such as health cost, loss in productivity, and impact on tourism and business. This year, fires in Indonesia have released 360 million tonnes of carbon dioxide since August, more than Spain’s emissions for the whole of 2018. Lives have been lost, and the health and livelihoods of millions impacted.

2.            The Government adopts a multi-pronged approach to tackle transboundary haze and mitigate its impact on Singaporeans.

3.            First, we have been undertaking diplomatic and regional efforts to tackle the haze problem. As early as April, I have written to my Indonesian counterpart to convey Singapore’s readiness to assist Indonesia in tackling land and forest fires. When the haze situation in Singapore worsened in September, CEO of National Environment Agency (NEA) wrote to his counterpart on 16 September to convey concerns about the haze situation and details of the fire-fighting assets that Singapore could activate to help Indonesia deal with the escalating number of hotspots. We also sent Indonesia a diplomatic note on the same day. On 19 September, CEO (NEA) wrote again to his counterpart after Indonesia announced that it had sealed off plantations operated by several companies, including Singapore-registered ones, after detecting fires in their concessions. CEO (NEA) requested for the offences committed and further information from the Indonesian government to support NEA’s investigations. We sent Indonesia a diplomatic note on 20 September expressing our concerns over the escalation of hotspots and sought their assistance to enhance measures on the ground to prevent and mitigate the occurrence of forest and land fires.  Additionally, CEO (NEA) wrote on 4 October to his counterpart to further request information on all companies suspected of intentionally burning land. We have yet to receive any response from the Indonesian government thus far.

4.            Singapore is supportive of the Indonesian government’s continuing efforts to suppress the forest and land fires. We recognise President Joko Widodo’s personal attention and efforts in tackling this problem.  The key is to prevent the fires from starting in the first place. Errant individuals and companies whose actions jeopardise the health and lives of people in ASEAN and which set back our efforts to fight climate change must be held accountable. Strong enforcement action must be taken against perpetrators and to deter others. 

5.            Singapore also works closely with other ASEAN Member States to monitor hotspot activities to support measures to reduce fires.  For more than two decades, the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC), which Singapore hosts, has been sharing regional weather and haze outlook, and satellite information with ASEAN Member States. The ASMC plays a critical regional role. Its technical assessments and updates on the haze situation, along with the ASMC’s meteorological forecasts and data on hotspot activities, support efforts to prevent, detect and fight fires.  In addition, Singapore is helping fellow ASEAN Member States build their capability in haze monitoring as well as weather and climate prediction. Singapore has contributed $5 million to the ASMC for a 5-year regional capability building programme.

6.            But we also need greater urgency and political resolve, as well as closer cooperation amongst ASEAN countries and stakeholders if we are to make progress towards a haze-free ASEAN. This is why Singapore has been participating actively and contributing at all regional haze-related meetings, such as the 21st meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution held in Brunei on 6 August. The MSC is an annual ministerial-level meeting which is convened in the run-up to the dry season in the Southern ASEAN region. This year’s meeting noted the ASMC’s report about the potential escalation of hotspot activities and increased risk of transboundary haze due to drier and warmer weather. I reminded ASEAN Member States that transboundary haze remained a major concern for the region and the need for preparedness. MSC member countries (Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand) had reaffirmed their readiness to enhance cooperation and coordination to address land and forest fires.

7.            At the same meeting, MSC member countries also reaffirmed their commitment to the objectives and principles of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) and the Roadmap on ASEAN Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of Implementation. The ten ASEAN countries, which are signatories to the AATHP, will meet in Cambodia on 8-9 October 2019 to take stock of the implementation of the Agreement and discuss how to further enhance its implementation. SMS Amy Khor will lead the Singapore delegation at the coming meeting. She will reiterate our concerns about the detrimental effects of haze, its impact on climate change and global emissions of greenhouse gas, and urge all ASEAN Member States to take strong action to prevent the recurrence of haze.

8.            Second, recognising that strong enforcement on the ground is needed to prevent the recurrent fires, Singapore enacted the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) in 2014 to send a strong signal that we will not tolerate the irresponsible actions of errant companies, whether Singapore-based or otherwise, that harm our environment. In 2015, NEA issued legal notices under the THPA to six companies to take immediate measures to stop the fires that caused haze that affected Singapore. Two of the companies have responded and explained that they were no longer associated with the affected lands. Upon further investigation, NEA accepted their explanation and closed these two cases.  As for the other four companies, their cases are still open. A director of one of these companies was served a THPA Notice to be interviewed by NEA when he was in Singapore. When he failed to turn up for the interview, a court warrant was obtained to secure his attendance when he next enters Singapore. NEA is on the lookout for other directors of these companies, and will similarly require them to assist in the investigations when they are in Singapore.

9.            Singapore therefore welcomes the Indonesian Ministry of the Environment and Forestry’s efforts to pursue action against errant companies culpable for the fires, subjecting them to the full extent of the law, and pursuing necessary evidence to do so. As mentioned earlier, CEO (NEA) has written to his Indonesian counterpart to request for more information pertaining to this year’s fires, so that we can investigate on our end. For this year’s haze episode, NEA is closely monitoring the situation and will update as appropriate. We hope that the Indonesian government will work with Singapore and other countries in the region by sharing substantiated information that could help identify companies suspected of causing fires. Indonesia should also publish information on land ownership and concession boundaries that can help ascertain which companies are involved. Indonesia’s cooperation in this will be useful and necessary in providing the evidence of wrongdoing by any company that has contributed to haze in Singapore. 

10.          The THPA complements the efforts of Indonesia and other countries to hold companies to account and is not intended to replace their laws and enforcement actions. We respect the sovereignty of others but States also have a responsibility to ensure that the activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Given that these fires occur abroad, regional cooperation remains crucial in resolving transboundary haze pollution. We are pleased that Malaysia is also considering similar legislation. We remain committed to work with other countries to find a solution, as well as collaborate through ASEAN and other international platforms such as the UN.

11.          The THPA is not a panacea or the only tool to fight transboundary haze. Although none of the investigated companies has been prosecuted yet, the THPA has nevertheless put added pressure on companies to behave responsibly. We have no plans to amend the THPA at this moment.

12.          Third, consumer choices and demand play a crucial role in shaping the practices of forestry and palm oil industries. As more consumers opt for sustainable products, this will incentivise companies to adopt more sustainable practices which in turn contributes to reducing haze. For example, under the World Wildlife Fund Singapore’s Southeast Asia Alliance on Sustainable Palm Oil (SASPO), efforts are being led by the industry and there is growing momentum towards adopting sustainable and responsible practices. The Singapore Environment Council (SEC) has established the enhanced Singapore Green Labelling Scheme (SGLS+) to help consumers identify sustainable pulp and paper. This certification demands full disclosure of the company’s supply chain, imposes the legal sourcing of all fibre, has a zero-burning policy and includes fire and peatland management. Assessment is done through site audits, evaluation and risk assessments of companies’ concession lands. As of 26 September 2019, 10 companies have achieved the SGLS+ certification. SEC will take punitive actions such as revocation of certification if there is proof of wrongdoing relating to companies of SGLS+ certified pulp and paper products.

13.          Financial institutions can exercise influence over regional forestry and palm oil companies, and promote the adoption of sustainable practices through their lending and investment activities. The Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) released a set of responsible financing guidelines in October 2015, comprising environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. In 2017, the ABS released the Haze Diagnostic Kit which provides best practices guidelines for member banks to assess their clients’ commitments to haze risk management. To support climate-related disclosures, the Singapore Exchange introduced the “Comply or Explain” Sustainability Reporting Guide for listed companies, beginning from the financial year ending on or after 31 December 2017.  Another important signal is that our investment entities do not invest in errant companies. Temasek Holdings has stated publicly that they consider ESG factors when making decisions as an investor looking to deliver returns on a sustainable basis and they fully support no burn policies for land clearance. GIC has also stated that they integrate sustainability considerations holistically into their investment processes.

14.          Fourth, to provide the public with timely information to safeguard their health and well-being, NEA has been issuing daily advisories on the haze situation since 4 August this year. The daily advisories provide the forecast of the Pollutant Standards Index or PSI for the next 24 hours which could be used as the basis for major decisions, such as school closure. This is in addition to the 1-hour PM2.5 levels and 24-hour PSI which are updated every hour and are available online and on the MyENV mobile application.

15.          During transboundary haze episodes, PM2.5 is the dominant pollutant and has the most influence on the PSI. The 1-hour PM2.5 levels provide an indicative measure of the current air quality, and is a useful indicator to guide immediate activities, such as whether or not to exercise outdoors.

16.          Fifth, to minimise the impact of haze on the public, the Government has since 1994 set up a Haze Task Force (HTF), comprising 28 government agencies. This is led by NEA. The HTF convened in early May this year, before the dry season, to begin preparations for a potential haze situation. With the onset of haze in mid-September, the HTF agencies have been rolling out actions to protect the health and well-being of the public, especially the more vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, children, and people with chronic lung and heart diseases.

17.          The Ministry of Health (MOH) worked with our healthcare institutions (including public hospitals, polyclinics and nursing homes) to prepare for any increase in the number of cases of haze-related conditions and on the timely activation of haze preparedness measures. These measures include using air purifiers and fans, and reducing ambient temperature by deploying portable air coolers where appropriate. Our public healthcare institutions are also monitoring patients closely for possible health effects of the haze and will institute appropriate medical intervention where necessary.

18.          In addition, all classrooms of primary and secondary schools, Ministry of Education (MOE) Kindergartens and Special Education schools have been equipped with air purifiers to enhance the well-being of students during a haze situation. Teachers will also be on the lookout for students who are unwell or have pre-existing lung or heart conditions.  Contingency plans are in place should there be haze during the examinations period.

19.          The HTF has also ensured that additional stocks of N95 masks are pushed out to retail shops, and there are sufficient stocks in the warehouses and government stockpiles. The Singapore Government has a national stockpile of 16 million N95 masks. The HTF has plans in place to distribute N95 masks to vulnerable and needy residents if the 24-hour PSI crosses into the “Very Unhealthy” (PSI 201-300) range. N95 masks are, however, not required for short exposure, like commuting from home to school or work, or in an indoor environment. The elderly, pregnant women and those with severe lung or heart problems who have difficulty breathing at rest or on exertion should consult their doctor as to whether they should use the N95 mask.

20.          We have considered cloud-seeding but there is a lack of reliable means to validate its effectiveness for Singapore. Given our small size and the variability of winds, the induced rain, if any, may not fall directly over our island.

21.          In the first half of October, the Southwest Monsoon is expected to transition to inter-monsoon conditions characterized by light and variable winds and increased showers. Some parts of the region can still experience periods of dry weather in October, and hotspot activities may persist in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan. However, the change in wind conditions will help to reduce the risk of transboundary haze affecting Singapore.

22.          NEA will continue to monitor the haze situation closely. For updates, members of the public can visit the NEA website (www.nea.gov.sg), MSS website (www.weather.gov.sg), the haze microsite (www.haze.gov.sg), mobile apps (myEnv and Weather@SG) or follow NEA Facebook (www.facebook.com/NEASingapore) and NEA Twitter (@NEAsg). For information on the distribution of hotspots detected over the past fortnight in the region, please refer to the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) website at asmc.asean.org.


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