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Times Singapore 16 Jan 07
Experts: Asia slow to act on pollution
For business' sake, stamp out the haze problem
By David Mason
THE favourite subject of conversation in the UK these days is global warming.
Last year has been declared the warmest year on record, though the length of the record is somewhat short. Greenhouse gases are to blame, we hear, principally carbon dioxide and methane.
The former is largely man-produced, and the latter primarily comes from the rear ends of cows and sheep. New Zealand is already experimenting with animal nappies.
The chief fallout of global warming is supposed to be a rise in sea levels, which will apparently swamp places like London, New York, the Maldives and even Singapore within a few decades, unless we do something about it. Living at an elevation of 304 metres (1,000 feet), I am quite relaxed.
As a nanny state, the UK is already preparing taxes on carbon footprint, and we expect the carbon dioxide inspectors on our doorsteps any day. Excessive use of the TV remote is about to become a crime. And do not think about taking a plane somewhere for a holiday or for business, unless it is to a conference on global warming, in which case it can be justified.
Yes, it is probably a serious problem, though the world has experienced much hotter climes before. This is because man has built things in places where it was never possible before the seas receded into ice caps.
What to do?
There is an old expression here - look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. This is odd - surely looking after the pounds first will save a lot of pennies?
So it is with global warming. Taxing me for having a car which emits more carbon dioxide than my neighbour's pales into insignificance when measured against the problem of coal-fired power stations being built in China.
Would it not be better to concentrate on the big polluters?
One of the biggest international causes of greenhouse gases is the indiscriminate burning of vegetation. The Amazon Basin and Indonesia come to mind. Action is apparently being taken in South America by paying people not to burn or by buying the land from them.
However, little action seems to be going on in South-east Asia. I left Singapore in 1997, when the haze first caused real problems to the city. Walking up River Valley Road, because of the 'changing shift' lack of taxis at rush hour, was very unpleasant. Action would be taken!
But has it happened?
Fortunately, El Nino, which is held responsible for changes in precipitation and wind direction, did not return until 2006, so the haze could be forgotten again, as could the lack of any real action by Asean.
Last year, it returned and concentrated our minds again. Where was the action in the last nine years?
Pollution of the atmosphere is a major worry for a place like Singapore. The ability to breathe fresh air helps to determine where people will live in the long term. Pollution of the Pearl River Delta is already persuading the international business community to leave Hong Kong.
Recurring haze in Singapore is an economic problem, not just one of health. Burning of vegetation is a requirement for the small farmer, to provide grazing and to grow small crops. It takes place around the world and has done so for thousands of years. It does not account for the haze.
What causes our problem is the wholesale demolition of ancient jungle to allow for the planting of vast areas of plantations, principally oil palm. This is supposed to be regulated in the countries concerned, but is obviously not - it is 'business'.
The solution is clear - stop it.
Three countries hold the key to this: Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore has the knowledge and the ability to pinpoint the areas affected via satellite. Indonesia knows who owns the land, some of whom are Indonesian themselves. Malaysia knows the rest.
So why can't the three get together and, with the support of the rest of Asean, stamp out the problem? There are about nine months to the next burning season and action is warranted.
Can Asean not come straight out and say it will not permit it to happen again?
And if it does, then name and shame the people responsible. Fine them and shun them. Otherwise, South-east Asia will gain international notoriety, which, in the long run, is the death knell for 'business'.
Meanwhile, I'll try to remember to buy a smaller car, public transport not being a viable alternative in this undeveloped part of the world.
The writer was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Singapore for 14 years. He is now a business consultant in the UK.
Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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