BURGOS, Ilocos Norte – Standing on an overlooking hilltop here in Burgos, Ilocos Norte, one can hear the northern wind blowing its loudest as it powers 50 wind turbines scattered all over a 600-hectare land that was once filled with snakes.
Welcome to the Burgos Wind Farm, a 150-megawatt new power plant that commenced operations in November last year and which is touted as one of the biggest wind farms in Southeast Asia.
It is owned and operated by Energy Development Corp. (EDC), a geothermal company led by the Lopez Group, a prominent Filipino family engaged in various businesses.
“This project underlines EDC’s strategy to be the country’s leading diversified renewable power company,” said EDC president Richard Tantoco, announcing the project.
The company said the project would not only provide 370 gigawatt-hours of electricity, which would power approximately two million households but could also displace an estimated 200,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.
Indeed, the air is crisp and fresh and there is no dark smoke or soot emitted anywhere in the wind farm. The difference is stark and telling, as say, if one would stand in the middle of a coal-fired power plant.
The people of Ilocos Norte could not be more proud.
“We are now the renewable energy capital of the Philippines, actually, not only in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia,” Ilocos Norte Governor Aimee Marcos told reporters in a recent briefing here.
Marcos welcomed the development of the Burgos Wind Farm in the province, saying that there is no substitute for clean energy.
The Burgos Wind Farm is not the only wind project in the province. Another wind farm is the Bangui Wind Farm, located in Bangui, another municipality in this province and constructed ahead of the Burgos Wind Farm.
Northwind Power Development Corp., a company controlled by Ayala Corp., a Filipino-owned conglomerate, operates this 33-MW wind farm in the province.
This project uses 20 wind turbines arranged on a single row and stretched along a nine-kilometer shoreline.
According to Northwind, this project is estimated to offset 57,000 tons of carbon emissions.
The wind farms in the province are just among the fast growing renewable energy (RE) projects in the Philippines, a country that is largely dependent on imported oil and whose main sources of power are coal-fired power plants.
RE in the Philippines
Indeed, over the last four years, the renewable energy sector in the Philippines has recorded tremendous growth and the excitement in the air is almost tangible.
More and more companies are eyeing the renewable energy sector and the Philippines is on the radar screen of foreign investors as well that are keen on investing in RE.
The policies of the administration of President Aquino are also contributing to the growth and development of RE.
One such policy, for instance, is the so-called feed-in-tariff (FIT) scheme given by the government, which is a set of incentives to lure investors into the RE sector.
And signs of boom are evident not just in the windy provinces of the North and the Visayas but also in rooftops of buildings and malls across different cities and municipalities that are being powered by solar energy.
Indeed, a policy change introduced by Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla encouraged renewable energy companies to push through with their investments.
He said that when he came to office in 2012, there were the so- called flippers or those companies that did not seem seriously interested in developing renewable energies but use the sites only for speculation.
“At the beginning of his term, there were around 200 service contracts pending. As it turned out, these service contracts were not only pending because of the long and complicated permitting process but also because a considerable amount of applicants already sold their sites. Therefore, he decided on the one hand to streamline the permitting process in order to favor the serious players, and on the other hand to make sure that flippers are abandoned. His administration simplified the permitting process for RE plants and streamlined the requirements of the financial and technical assessments,” according to a December 2014 report prepared by GIZ, an international organization operated by the German government, on the success of RE in the Philippines.
Thus, he introduced the first-come, first served rule for FIT.
In a separate interview, Petilla said this rule for FIT was meant to weed out the non-serious developers or the flippers.
This approach proved to be efficient and successful, the Energy chief said.
Wind, Solar, Biogas
For instance, the Burgos Wind Power Project was built in a span of just six months.
Similarly, the San Carlos Energy Inc. (SaCaSol) successfully connected the first 22 MW of its solar plant in Negros in the southern Philippines in May last year and another 30 MW are under construction.
According to the company, the SaCaSol plant is expected to provide approximately 31,610,473 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity annually to the Visayas Grid, which is currently suffering from brownouts and low voltage problems.
Petilla said this regulation created confidence on the Philippine government as a reliable partner supporting serious RE developers.
In 2014, the government had started to reap the fruits of its labor.
SaCaSol was inaugurated in May and at the end of last year, the installed capacity of net metering solar PV rooftops was around 450 kWh, with total potential of 1 MW in solar rooftops estimated to be in the pipeline.
SaCaSol chairman Jose Maria Zabaleta, in a December 2014 symposium celebrating the success of RE in the Philippines, shared the success story of the SaCaSol project.
Zabaleta, originally a sugar farmer, said it was in 2012 when he talked about his plans to build a solar plant with the credit agency Thomas Lloyd, which in turn agreed to provide funding for the project.
He said that aside from providing clean energy, the construction of the solar plant also provide employment to the community.
The project employed 2,500 people and the unemployment rate went down close to zero percent.
Furthermore, since there is now stable power, a Japanese company has set up shop in the province and is now employing 1000 people.
SaCaSol is set to double its capacity and is exploring new areas, Zabaleta said.
Tetchi Capellan, president of the Philippine Solar Power Alliance (PSPA) said the development of the solar industry in the Philippines started in 2011, when a group of private sector representatives organized a business trip to Germany to learn how to develop a solar power market.
In 2012, the Asian Development Bank built a 520 kW solar system on their roof, marking the first break through in solar development in the country.
To support development of RE, solar developers pushed for the net metering rules as a support mechanism for solar rooftops.
The net metering system is provided under the Renewable Energy Law of 2008. It allows electricity end-users who are updated in the payment of their electricity bills to their distribution utility to engage in distribution generation
The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), the power regulator, passed the implementing rules in June 2013.
Since then, the solar rooftop market has developed tremendously. While at the beginning of 2014, a capacity of only 200 kW were under the net metering scheme, this number increased already to almost 1 MW by the end of 2014.
Some of these solar rooftop installations and projects are the 22 MW SaCaSol project, the first solar farm in the Philippines and a solar panel rooftop in one of the branches of the SM Mall, the largest mall chain in the Philippines.
Launched in November last year by local firm Solar Philippines, the project involves 5,760 solar panels and 60 inverters installed over the mall’s parking building, covering 12,000 square meters.
The 1.5 MW plant will be able to augment the mall’s power requirements, or the equivalent of 2,000 Filipino homes. It is expected to operate for over 25 years and offset an estimated 40,000 tons of CO2, according to Solar Philippines.
Capellan said there are more solar rooftops and projects that would likely materialize this year, for both commercial and public buildings.
Solar Philippines, for instance, inaugurated on March 5 another solar rooftop project, this time at Robinson’s Place Palawan, another giant mall chain in the country.
Approximately 20 percent of the mall’s electricity consumption will be covered by the solar panels 1,100 tons of carbon emissions per year, the company said.
And it’s not only solar that has potential for growth in the country.
According to the Energy department, the Philippines has a total biomass potential of 4400 MW that remains to be fully tapped.
So far, the current installed biogas capacity in the country is only 11 MW and another 50 MW in the pipeline.
Indeed, Ditmar Gorges, chief executive officer of biogas company EnTech said the biogas industry is still starting to develop the market in the Philippines.
He said that biogas plants not only utilize industrial waste but also creates farm jobs.
Running a 1 MW plant employs around 120 farmworkers, Gorges said.
He said crucial to the establishment of a Philippine biomass market is capacity building and raising awareness for potential biomass investors.
Filipino-owned Cleangreen Energy Corporation (CEC) is another example of a company that is tapping the potential of biogas in the country.
The company is building a 12 MW biomass power plant in Bataan, a province in the north, to commence operations in 2017.
Indeed, wind, solar, biogas have huge potential in the Philippines. Hydropower and geothermal sources, meanwhile, already exist and have been providing power to the grid.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), as of 2011, the Philippines’ installed power capacity is divided as follows: coal has a 30 percent share, followed by natural gas at 18 percent percent and then oil-based plants at 19 percent. The share of renewable energy, meanwhile, is as follows: 11 percent for geothermal, 22 percent for hydro, and 0 percent for wind, solar and biomass. This was in 2011. Total installed capacity is 16,162 MW.
While there is no updated figure on this yet, the 2015 registered capacity at the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), the country’s trading floor for electricity, may provide an indicator on how much capacity of renewable energy has increased.
The registered capacity at the WESM for 2015 is as follows” coal is at 36.55 percent, natural gas at 17.58 percent, oil-based at 15.50 percent, geothermal at 11.17 percent, hydro at 15.36 percent, wind at 2.44 percent, biomass at 0.87 percent, solar at 0.33 percent and small hydro at 0.19 percent.
Moving forward, energy players expressed optimism that the RE industry in the Philippines will continue to grow.
Ernesto Pantangco, chairman of the National Renewable Energy Board (NREB), a multi-sectoral body under the Department of Energy that aims to promote the RE sector, is very optimistic that the investments in RE will increase.
He said that NREB is working on an information campaign in order to make more companies aware of the feed-in tariff incentive.
Solutions to Power Crisis
Pantangco, who is also senior vice president of EDC, the owner of the Burgos Wind Farm, also believes that RE can be part of the solution to the looming energy crisis in the Philippines.
Solar power is definitely a part of the solution because solar PV plants produce just at the right time energy to provide peak power, he said.
He also said that even though wind power has its off-season during summer time, it would still produce around 20 percent output contributing to the power reserves.
Another official of the group that owns the wind farm agreed.
“Anytime the wind is blowing, (the wind farm) will generate up to 150 MW,” said Aloysius Santos, vice president of First Gen., the power generation company of the Lopez Group, said in a recent briefing with reporters.
He said even during the summer, there is a potential for the wind farm to generate 150 MW of power because there would still be windy days.
A power supply shortage is looming this summer for the Luzon grid, one of three grids in the country. The two other grids are the Visayas and Mindanao grids.
The supply shortage is at least 700 MW due to higher demand and insufficient supply because of the one-month maintenance shutdown of the Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power Project in offshore Palawan.
The Malampaya facility, which supplies 40 percent of Luzon grid’s requirements, is scheduled for a maintenance shutdown from March 15 to April 15.
Indeed, there are many advantages of RE aside from augmenting supply this summer.
And the Philippines, blessed with manifold renewable energy sources, can do well to maximize these resources.
According to GIZ, increasing fuel prices, high energy import dependence, ever increasing carbon emissions and unconsidered external costs of fossil fuels make renewable energies the superior alternative.
It said that electricity generation from renewable energy makes the country less dependent on energy imports.
“In 2013, indigenous energy sources saved the country energy imports in the amount of $2.7 billion. 56.75 percent of the Philippines energy demand is already covered by indigenous energy sources. Yet, the energy demand is expected to rise annually by four percent. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are free of charge and can help to cover the additional demand keeping the Philippine import,” GIZ said in a report on RE.
RE can also cushion the economy from volatile prices of fossil fuels.
“The prices for fossil fuels like natural gas and steam coal are very volatile. This makes it difficult to predict the future costs for electricity generated from fossil fuels. Most renewable energies have no fuel costs that makes it easier to predict their costs,” GIZ said.
More importantly, it said that the use of renewable energies would significantly reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The replacement of 1 kWh coal generated electricity by 1 kWh RE generated electricity saves around 960gCO2,” it said.
Energy Revolution: Going Green
Environmental group Greenpeace also said that the Philippines could embrace an energy revolution and totally abandon coal.
“The Philippines can embrace an energy revolution, turn its back on coal, seize the moment and lead the way for renewables in Southeast Asia, capitalizing on its success in geothermal and in solar panel production,” Greenpeace said.
Furthermore, Greenpeace said that renewables ensure the country’s security of supply, help cope with rising demand and provide decarbonized energy.
“We all need electricity. It is vital. It powers our lives, runs our hospitals and schools – we need to for every aspect of our lives. But we need to be clean and sustainable. Embracing the energy revolution and harnessing renewables doesn’t mean bankruptcy and sacrifice. The facts show that it can bring us wealth, cost savings and employment,” the group said, adding that thousands of jobs can be created by the industry.
For his part, Department of Energy director of Renewable Energy Management Bureau Mario Marasigan said in an interview that the goal is to increase the share of RE continuously.
“Our aim is to triple the capacity of RE by 2030. RE is clean so we need that,” Marasigan said.
The department he said, has the thrust to ensure energy security and at the same time, “climate proof” the future.
At the same time, he said the government needs the help of everyone in promoting RE because it cannot do it alone.
Going green and utilizing RE sources, indeed, will surely go a long way for the future of the Philippines as well as the health of its people and the environment.
Forest fires, and the haze pollution they cause, are increasingly becoming a serious national headache for Indonesia. The country has been a target of finger pointing by its ASEAN neighbors – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – year after year because of this seemingly perennial problem.
Riau province in central Sumatra has emerged as the chief culprit for the haze problem. Land clearing by burning forests has traditionally been seen as a cultural rite by local farmer. The problem is, big palm oil plantation companies have also resorted to similar methods when it comes to clearing lands, according to latest reports by Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (Walhi), or the Indonesian Forum for Environment, which is part of the Friends of the Earth network.
Haze pollution is not just a domestic headache for Indonesia, particularly for the provinces of Sumatra and West Kalimantan, where the problem occurs leading to dry seasons fro March to July. It has become a double-edged sword, affecting the local communities both on the health and economic aspects, and leading to “national shame” when neighboring countries start complaining about haze.
In August this year, a number of districts and cities in Riau had to bear forest fires, prompting the Regional Disaster Management Agency (BPBD) to deploy three helicopters on water bombing missions. According to Jim Gafur of the agency’s Prevention and Preparedness Section, the helicopters were sent to three areas worst hit by forest fire, Rokan Hilir, Dumai and Bengkalis.
In addition to sending helicopters, fire extinguishing operations have been undertaken by means of artificial rain.
The Indonesian government seems to have taken a serious note of the problem. Jakarta is about 2,000 kilometres from Pekanbaru, the capital of the Riau province, and many observers feel local administration hasn’t done enough to curb the practice because of its distant location from the capital. For all practical purposes, it’s up to the central government in Jakarta to resolve the problem.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the Valuing Nature Award from the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and the WWF in 2012 for conserving the nation’s natural resources, finds himself in the spotlight every time the problem is reported.
The President had taken stern action this March.
“If, within the next one or two days, the Riau administration and the ministers cannot tackle (this problem), then I’ll take over the leadership and control (of the problem),” Yudhoyono said in a statement via his Twitter on March 13, 2014. He landed at Riau airport on March 16 and led control of the fires by directing field personnel on how to deal with the problem decisively. He declared forest fires and haze pollution as national calamities, effectively putting the matter under the central government’s financing and control.
He has since then called on law enforcers to impose tough punishments on those burning forests, saying smoke disasters in the province of Riau would persist if law enforcers were lenient. “Seventy percent of land fires in Riau were [done] on purpose. Without deterrent effects, hundreds of billions will be wasted to solve this problem,” the President said during a meeting with regional leaders and business owners at the residence of the Riau governor in Pekanbaru later that day.
Based on data available with Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) in Jakarta, forest and land fires in Riau Province between February 2014 and April 2014 caused economic losses worth at least Rp20 trillion (roughly USD 2 billion). They have affected at least 25,000 hectares of forest, plantation and peat-soil areas throughout the province. They disrupted around 30 percent of economic activities, in addition to over 60,000 people that needed medical treatments for respiratory problems up to end of July 2014.
So far, Riau police have arrested and named 183 people who had allegedly committed crimes of burning bushes or forests. A total of 116 suspects have been nabbed while undertaking forest crime activities between January 2014 and March 2014, while 67 others were named as suspects during the period April 5, 2014 to July 10. “The number of suspects could increase because the on-field team is still on the lookout for criminals responsible for new forest fires,” Riau Police spokesman Adjunct Senior Commissioner Guntur Aryo Tejo had said recently.
Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has urged the Riau Province Administration not to issue more permits for oil palm plantations, as two million hectares of the plantations is illegal or has no permit. Four of the eight million hectares of plantation area of Riau Province has been used for growing oil palm. “Theoretically, additional permit may not be issued,” the minister had said, adding just 2,0 million of the total 4,0 million hectares of oil palm plantation area have an official permit for forest conversion.
Indonesia introduced a law against burning in 1999 after widespread fires in the two preceding years caused a thick haze to blanket parts of Indonesia and neighboring countries. The law carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a 10-billion-rupiah (USD 1 million) fine. The enforcement of the law nevertheless has been weak. Therefore, the Indonesian government has taken over matters related to forest fires, calling them a matter of national affair, not anymore a provincial issue.
At a meeting in Myanmar May this year, leaders of ASEAN noted transboundary haze pollution remains a concern in the region. In this regard, they agreed to further intensify regional and international cooperation including those under the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), particularly to promote efforts among ASEAN Member States to ensure the full and effective implementation of the zero burning techniques in land clearing. They acknowledged the ASEAN Sub-regional Haze Monitoring System (HMS) is a useful tool to assist in monitoring and internal enforcement actions against irresponsible parties contributing to fires.
The ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution is a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002 by all the ASEAN nations to reduce haze pollution in Southeast Asia. The agreement recognizes trans-boundary haze pollution, which results from land and/or forest fires, should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.
Jonathan Von blogs in his Facebook about the choking haze in Singapore that caused him to suffer breathing difficulty and prayed hard for the rain.
His FB posting in rhymed stanza on 21 July 2014 read:
MAIGAD this haze, is killin’ me,
I must confess, i cannot breathe,
When it gets smoky i lose my mind,
Give me a siiiiiiiggnnnnnn…..
Send the rain down one more time.
“The cavalry (clouds) arrives, bad news for the haze that haunts us for the last one week”, cheered Jimmy Leow, a manager-cum-citizen journalist for Malaysiakini.com, in his FB posting up north in Penang, Malaysia, a month later.
Von and Leow are two working professionals living 800km apart. They faced the same health hazard and the same sense of helplessness. As long as the dry season persists, they are on the same boat, lamenting their discomfort from the same concern.
Every time they swore, their mind turned to Indonesia, namely Riau province in Sumatra, the area from where the haze originated. and the cause large-scale open burning of forested land for oil palm plantations.
Satellite images have recorded many hotspots there. Haze is definitely an ‘exported’ trans-boundary air pollution that is carried by strong winds across the Straits of Malacca to neighbouring six Southeast Asian countries in the north; with the worst hit being Malaysia and Singapore.
This annual haze phenomenon is said to affect the health of some 75 million people.
With El Nino (dry spell) expected to hit this region, there is no slack in the intensity of the haze bellowing and shrouding cities in the weeks ahead.
One of the worst haze happened in June 2013 when illegal fires in Sumatra plunged the Southeast Asian region — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Southern Thailand – into a crisis.
The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) in Singapore hit a high of 401 (hazardous range), while in Muar, Johor, the Air Pollution Index (API) spiked on 23 June to 746, sending the district into a state of emergency. Readings exceeding 200 for both the PSI and API is considered as unhealthy and a health hazard.
Haze is not an isolated incident; it is a major environment problem since 1992.
Haze is man-made and a self-inflicted wound.
May to September is the time of the year when farmers eager to prepare their farm land for replanting go about with their traditional practice of slash and burn.
This alone will not bring about the volume of smokes sufficient enough to blacken the skies. Hot-spot images showed large scale open burnings that are happening in areas where oil palm plantations are found in the Riau province in Sumatra, Indonesia.
In the past decade benefiting from the high world palm oil prices, Riau has witnessed a change and reaped economic benefits the likes of which residents there had not seen before.
Corporate Interest versus Health Risk
Big multi-national corporations from Malaysia in search of land to open up for oil palm plantations found a rich hinterland in Sumatra. Their successes attracted companies in Singapore to join in.
Soon enough, with big profits make in selling palm oil that is fetching high prices, Malaysia’s superannuation funds like Employee’s Provident Fund, Tabung Haji and Armed Forces Pension Fund Board (LTAT) invested in Malaysian-owned companies operating these oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
It was a good return on investment and fat dividends were paid out to their shareholders.
Today, apart from the superannuation funds, Malaysia’s conglomerate Sime Darby Group has over 10,000 hectares of land under oil palm plantation there.
Indonesia, on the other hand, is benefiting from Foreign Direct Investments and the local economy in Riau also prospered.
Fast forward today, Indonesia has vastly expanded its oil palm plantations, overtaking Malaysia to become the world’s biggest supplier. The palm oil industry in Indonesia is worth US$21billion industry and it contributes to about 5 per cent of its GDP.
Malaysia, being a party to all this, cannot wash its hands. Last year, the Indonesian Environment Minister named eight Malaysian companies with fire hotspots on their concessions. The companies have, however, denied such claims.
This haze that has crossed over to the peninsula from Sumatra is self-inflicted. In the interest of lower cost and higher profit margins, the allegedly errant parties (Malaysian-owned companies) are putting at risk the people’s health.
Opposition deputy chairman S. Ramakrishnan in the State of Johor in Peninsular, the state closest to Riau province and facing the brunt of the haze air pollution, has disclosed that these Malaysian-owned companies as big and powerful corporations with heavy political patronage.
“I am just a small mosquito, but I believe that I am speaking for the majority of Malaysians who are fed up with haze. I am also calling for Malaysian consumers to invoke a wide boycott on companies accused of polluting the air through indiscriminate land clearing in Indonesia
“We must educate our consumers to play a part in eradicating haze once and for all from our skies,” the former Senator says.
Based on satellite data, it is estimated that 80% of the fires were set by plantation companies or their sub-contractors for land clearing purposes, while the remaining 20% by ‘slash-and-burn’ practice by farmers.
Political patronage and Impunity
Many Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean firms have been able to evade official investigation by the Indonesian Government even when there were repeated indicators of open burning. The widespread practice of patronage politics in this sector has emboldened errant companies to act with impunity, says Ramakrishnan.
“Malaysian and Singaporean companies in Indonesia are linked to powerful political elites back home who are more motivated by material gain than protecting the interests of the people affected by the haze.
“There is little hope to address trans-boundary haze effectively unless the root cause of the system, patronage politics is conclusively addressed. Political patronage protects the trans-border haze pollutants,” he claims.
Ramakrishnan says the records showed that Malaysian and Singaporean investors controlled more than two-thirds of the Indonesian oil palm plantation sector.
“They are a powerful lobby group. I hope Greenpeace will take up the cause as all other efforts including by Malaysia’s own environment ministry has failed miserably.
Haze a health hazard
Medical doctor Dr T. Jayabalan says while there are no official statistics done by the Health Ministry to indicate that the rise of respiratory ailments was due to haze, most would agree that respiratory ailments were always on the rise during the dry season.
“Patients who are previously non-asthmatic become asthma sufferers while the conditions of asthmatic patients become worse. I know as I am treating them,” he says.
Haze agreement in limbo?
Legislator Steven Sim says he is concerned with the effectiveness of the ASEAN agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution to curb haze pollution since it is already 12 years of existence.
“This is evidence that the 21st century requires a different set of mentality in dealing with diplomacy and foreign relation. We are dealing not just with state actors but many non-state actors as well, notably in this case MNCs’ haze-causing activities.
More than 10 years after the agreement, Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country and one of the major locations where land clearing is carried in large scale which causes serious air pollution has yet to ratify the agreement.
“While the blame is directed to Malaysian or Singaporean companies operating in Indonesia, the Indonesia government needs to demonstrate more commitment to tackle this issue within its own jurisdiction.
“Signing the agreement is definitely the first step. Enacting and enforcing air pollution regulation within its jurisdiction is next.
Malaysia, he says, should monitor the activities of Indonesia-based Malaysia companies in particular GLCs to ensure they adhere to the principles of the agreement. This is a major transnational problem which affects even our own country and we cannot be mere passive observers.
A case of the pot calling the kettle black
Lawyer S. Raveentharan says Indonesia should not resort to the case of the pot calling the kettle black.
“Indonesia has no excuses. It must act on all companies polluting the environment even if they are Malaysian or Singaporean firms.
“I hope the new Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will have the political will to make the changes needed and not repeat the same stance of previous leaders by shifting blame to others,” he says.
Founder of Rights movement (an Asean human rights and anti-genocide organisation) Yusmadi Yusoff says it is paramount that in this age of globalisation, Asean must stand up as one voice and protect its own skies.
“If Asean cannot cooperate to tackle the environment concern, how can Asean tackle other issues,” he asks.
In a The Establishment report filed by Vanitha Nadaraj in July this year, the haze has caused Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to suffer huge economic losses.
She quoted Adelina Kamal of Asean’s Bureau of Functional Cooperation in a 2002 report that “the total economic losses in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism, and other economic endeavors have been estimated of US$9.3 billion.”
Another worst case happened in 2013 when the haze spread further affecting southern Thailand and Brunei. For Singapore itself, it was the worst ever and the government estimated the economic losses at US$1 billion a week, as quoted in the report.
In a concluding remark in her 2013 paper entitled on “Patronage Politics, Plantation Fires and Trans-boundary Haze” by author Helena Varkkey in the journal Environmental Hazards Vol. 12 noted succinctly that:
“The serious environmental hazard that is the almost annual trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia can be seen to be bolstered by patronage networks that are prevalent in the business atmosphere of Indonesia.
“Well-connected local and foreign oil palm plantation companies have been able to take advantage of these linkages to ensure that they can act with impunity. Hence, these companies continue to use fire as a cost-efficient way to clear land in preparation for planting while disregarding the serious environmental implications that rise from the hazardous smoke that is produced from these fires.
“The national laws and regulations against the use of fire are rendered useless in the face of powerful economic interests, and the SoutheastAsian society continues to suffer the effects of haze pollution year after year.”
This self-inflicted bane will continue and with the onset of El Nino hitting Southeast Asia the worst is yet to come and again the people’s health is short-changed by profiteering.
Beating Bangkok’s chaotic and notorious traffic has become easier with ‘Pun Pun’, the city’s public bike sharing programme and the Thai word for “pedal.” For less than USD 1 for the first three hours, renting a bike not only saves time but is also a small way Bangkokians can do their part in helping to reduce air pollution and make the City of Angels more sustainable.
The project began in 2012 under the initiative of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and was one of the then-governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra’s pledges during his campaign for re-election for a second term. Many ‘bike lanes’ have been constructed to allow cyclists to navigate more conveniently through the city’s busy roads and sidewalks which are often filled with street vendors peddling goods, such as along Phra Artit Road around the Khao San area, popular among backpackers and visitors.
With stations located mainly in the downtown area, residents and tourists can rent bikes and ride around the city and conveniently return them at a station close to their destination. Popular stops include the trendy Siam Square and Zuillig House Stations in the city’s business district of Silom.
With non-stop development of new shopping centres and condominiums in the capital city, especially along Sukhumvit Road and along the Chao Phraya River, there is less and less green space and fewer trees that help to absorb the city’s polluted carbon emissions.
Vehicles are the main culprits
“When talking about air pollution in Thailand, there probably is no difference when we compare Bangkok with other large cities in developing countries which also face unavoidable problems with air pollutants resulting from nature as well as from human activities,” says Dr Sirimia Panyametheekul, an environmental engineer from the Chulalongkorn University.
Exhaust from vehicles is the main contributor to the capital’s polluted air. However, with the Thai government’s efforts through its Pollution Control Department (PCD) at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment the situation has considerably improved over the past decade. The PCD monitors round-the-clock the air quality index, based on four pollutants and provides details on its website, www.airforthai.pcd.go.th.
By far, the biggest culprit is diesel gas common among trucks and buses. Because of its importance to the country’s logistics and its close link with cost of living, successive Thai governments have had to subsidise the price of diesel, making it the cheapest among all types of fuel. What makes car exhaust dangerous to people’s health are the various chemical components that pose dangers to people’s health. Be it nox, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or a host of other toxic chemicals harmful to our health. Nox and carbon monoxide can also be transferred and mixed with rain to produce acid rain.
Professor N. T. Kim Oanh from the School of Environment Resources and Development at Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) believes it is necessary to reduce black carbon, which is emitted from diesel vehicles because such substances absorb solar radiation that leads to a warming effect. Iyngararasan Mylvakanam, Programme Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), an international organization that promotes collaboration among countries and supports capacity building to address air quality issues, explains carbon monoxide is toxic to humans while carbon dioxide is what warms the planet and what causes people to suffer from asthma.
According to Mylvakanam, the small particular matters, or dust, are the most harmful given that people breathe these in, causing allergies and other respiratory problems. Mylvakanam cautions that although there is exhaust from buses, this is deemed acceptable because of the lower per capita emission. Mylvakanam compares how one bus full of passengers is equal to 50 cars driven by one person.
Introduction of alternative fuels
The successful introduction of plant-based gasohol using palm oil in 2001 was due to His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej’s concern for the degrading environmental conditions in the Kingdom and His Majesty’s initiative to find sustainable alternatives for his subjects. With the introduction of lead-free gas and the promotion of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and natural gas vehicle (NGV) fuels as alternative sources of fuel, the city’s air has become increasingly better over the past few decades.
Many taxi drivers and motorists, for example, have modified their engines and installed LPG or NGV fuels, which are fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, there is still some concern when it comes to particulate matter (PM-10) and tropospheric ozone along the roads, or ambient side, which still exceed the standard due to the heavy traffic found in Bangkok. However, Professor Kim states tests of air quality have shown sulfur dioxide and NoX 11 have decreased, which are good signs since more motorists use cleaner fuel.
How to resolve the problem?
“There is no single solution to this problem,” Panyametheekul explains, “the time it takes to address the issue also depends on the cause of air pollution, the concentration of the toxins in the air.” Pollution from one place can easily affect another area as the air is linked and cannot be physically separated.
Pochanart believes that the issue is a shared responsibility. Many Bangkokians prefer to drive their own cars because of the poor quality of the city’s public transport. Thus, if the mass transit system can be further expanded and cover more areas and the quality of city’s buses enhanced, more people would leave their cars at home, which would help reduce air pollution.
Tara Buakamsri, Campaign Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, feels people are more conscious about climate change, but they are not sure where to start. Many start by changing small habits such as by using cloth bags. However, bigger changes are more challenging given the fact people cannot see or perceive possible impacts and consequences.
Another problem is many organizations launch their own campaign to address environmental issues, “but there is a lack of coordination,” Buakamsri explains. There has to be greater coordination among the different stakeholders. Buakamsri adds “we should raise awareness in the whole system and introduce plans to develop the whole city”.
Use of alternative forms of transportation
With the construction of the BTS skytrains and MRT subway trains, Bangkokians now have alternative choices to get around the city and avoid traffic. The government has also embarked on expanding the coverage of these trains to more parts of the city, and within the next two years many additional stations will be available connecting more residents in the suburbs with the downtown core.
“One solution is to raise people’s consciousness and allow the public to take part in solving the problem, such as by using mass transit, walking, and/or using bicycles,” suggests Panyametheekul. She also explains that by improving Bangkok’s public infrastructure such as sidewalks and mass transit system for citizens of all walks of life, these simple solutions are more sustainable rather than introducing new technology.
In 2014, the Environmental Performance Index again ranked Vietnam among the worst 10 of 178 countries on the air pollution index. Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh were ranked worse.
Vietnam has grown remarkably fast from one of the world’s poorest nations in the 1980s to a middle-income country. Its urban areas have come under pressure from surging population, increasing transportation demand and economic growth. Is Vietnam getting short of breath?
Is the state of Vietnam’s air quality alarming?
The Environmental Performance Index, a worldwide ranking created by researchers at the Yale University and the Columbia Universities, uses satellite-derived estimates to measure fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure and exceedance. This method makes cross-country comparisons possible – many countries do not yet measure ground-based PM2.5.
A look at Hanoi’s real time Air Quality Index data shows the concentration of pollutants varies during the day. “While the air quality in some regions in the country is still good, we worry about some cities and industrial areas”, says Dr. Hoang Duong Tung, Deputy Director General of the Vietnam Environment Administration, under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. According to their data, PM2.5 concentration in cities on many days exceeds Vietnam’s national air quality standard, which is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) for a 24-hours average, he says.
“Yes, the figures are alarming. Air quality has become a priority concern for the government. We saw TV reports on Beijing’s severe smog pollution – a situation we want to avoid in Vietnam,” he says. Besides particulate matter, dust and ozone are also of concern, while SO2 levels are less of a problem, says Tung, adding Vietnam’s air quality issues are typical to many southeast Asian countries.
What are the main sources of air pollution in Vietnam?
In the cities, the leading source of air pollution emissions is transport. Up until the end of the 1980s, the main means of transport in Hanoi were bicycles and trams. Economic growth and the rise in living standards have led to a surge in motorised transport. Bicycles have almost entirely given way to motorcycles as the preferred mode of transport in Vietnam. Motorcycles account for more than 9O per cent of the fleet in the nearly six-million-strong Hanoi, with its many narrow streets and alleys often too tiny to be accessible by car.
“Almost everyone has a motorcycle, while public transport is limited and not very popular. Busses carry only five per cent to 10 per cent of the population,” says Tung, adding, “Also, the habit of walking is anything but common here. People use motorbikes even for very short distances.”
Vietnam’s vehicle fleet grew consistently at an average of 16 per cent per annum from between 2000 and 2012, while growth in car numbers was highest, at 18 per cent, during this period, according to a report by the air quality network Clean Air Asia. More than 37 million motorcycles are registered in Vietnam, with a population of 90 million people. The number of cars is around two million.
Another significant source of air pollution are coal-fired power plants and cement and steel factories. Construction dust also adds to the pollution, as well as the burning of the field residue during the harvest season, which affects the local air quality during certain times of the day and brings noticeable smoke into Hanoi for about a week, Tung explains.
What measures are being taken in Vietnam to fight air pollution?
Vietnam is gradually tightening standards for new vehicles and has put measures in place to control petrol quality. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Vietnam is moving to 50ppm sulfur in fuels by 2016 to meet Euro 4 vehicle emission standards, and has confirmed moving to Euro 5 by 2021.
To control the number of cars, Vietnam is also taking financial measures. The country has a 200 per cent tax on auto purchases. The registration fee in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was increased. “Ironically driving up the price of cars makes them more attractive to own,” Dr. Terry F. Buss, a Fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration wrote in an article on traffic congestion in Vietnam’s major cities published by Tuoi Tre News. “Because they are a sign of wealth, car owners are very unlikely to ride buses or trains.”
Tung says for motorcycles the country still lacks a good maintenance program. “Many old motorbikes are still in use, although they often get sold in the countryside. There aren’t any strict inspections for existing busses in place yet either,” he says. Unlike in some other Asian countries, two-stroke motorbikes are not a big concern since they are not popular in Vietnam.
According to an article on traffic safety by Thanh Nien News from November 2013, several experts had proposed the idea of imposing a motorbike ban in major cities, which had been met by opposition. The article quoted Nguyen Hoang Hiep, deputy chairman of the National Traffic Safety Committee, saying a ban was currently impossible because of undeveloped economics, lack of infrastructure and insufficient public transport.
With the current limited infrastructure and street capacities, the number of public busses in the cities can only be increased in certain areas, says Tung. Metro projects for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which aim to reduce the use of private transport, face years of delay.
Eight subway lines are planned for Hanoi. The project is being coordinated and financed by several organisations including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. In Ho Chi Minh City, a rapid transit network with seven metro lines and three monorail routes is planned with Japanese aid. Construction work started in 2012. A new 14-kilometre rapid transit route for buses with a separate road lane in Hanoi is planned to go into operation in 2015.
Electric bicycles and e-scooters seem to be becoming increasingly popular in the cities, especially among students. “It is encouraging to see that more and more people are using e-bikes,” says Tung, “But we need to develop a sustainable battery collection and recycling system.” Hanoi is planning to start a pilot public bicycle rental program similar to programs in European cities and in China.
How could cities systematically improve their air quality?
At a local level, sufficient and consistent data on air quality monitoring is often unavailable. The project Clean Air for Smaller Cities in the ASEAN Region, funded by the German government, is being carried out by the German International Cooperation (GIZ) in eight countries in Southeast Asia. “In Vietnam, we have recently started with our project activities,” says Project Director Martina Kolb.
In the city of Bac Ninh, an emission inventory is currently being developed to detect which sources are emitting which air pollutants and to what extent. The same procedure is planned for the city Can Tho. “At this stage we don’t have any completed analysis for these two cities yet,” says Kolb. “Generally speaking, in smaller cities in the ASEAN region, transport tends to be the main source of air pollution. In Bac Ninh public transport is currently limited,” she says.
Based on these emission inventories, targeted measures to reduce air pollution will be suggested in clean air plans. “Such clean air plans have been common practice in the European Union. If a city exceeds the air quality standard on a particular number of days, measures have to be taken to reduce air pollution, such as introducing low emission zones,” Kolb says.
Suggested measures in these clean air plans are following the approach “avoid-shift-improve”. Heavy traffic can, for example, be avoided or significantly reduced by an urban planning that keeps distances between workplaces and residential areas at a minimum. By offering more public transport, motorized individual transport can be shifted to more environmental friendly modes of transport. The infrastructure can be improved by creating sidewalks and lanes for busses and bicycles.