Haze – who is to blame?

In Climate Change, Forest, Haze, Sustainable Consumption
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Can companies clean up our air by cleaning up their palm oil?

By Tan Yi Han, PM.HAZE (People’s Movement Against Haze)

When Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry was reported as telling Singapore to “focus on its own role in addressing the issue instead of making so many comments”, it unsurprisingly led to an explosion of angry rebuttals by readers in Singapore.

Yet, many of these same people might be tucking into a dish of Char Kuay Teow fried in palm oil, or munching on a slice of bread containing palm oil shortening. Do we know where this palm oil came from? What have we done to make sure we’re not funding the haze?

 

A shopping trolley containg many typical products at a supermarket in the UK. Cakes, biscuits, chocolate, confectionery, meat, frozen fish, spreads, cereals, sweets, cosmetics, crisps, snacks, cleaning and hygene products amongst the items - Many products contain a surprising amount of Palm Oil.
© WWF / Richard Stonehouse

If we wish to avoid a day when everyone in Singapore has to abandon the country because of the terrible air, perhaps it is wiser to rise above the bickering and look at how we can address the issue – for Singapore’s sake.

Palm oil has often been blamed for contributing to the haze problem. A report by the World Bank showed that more than 500,000 hectares of land burnt in 2015 was in palm oil concessions. Yet, while steps have rightly been taken to identify sustainable sources of paper, little has been mentioned about how we can ensure the palm oil we buy is not contributing to the haze.

Part of the reason could be how palm oil has been under the radar of consumers, hidden underlabels like “vegetable oil” or “Sodium Laureth Sulfate”, or behind the counter, when it is used as cooking oil for preparing our food. But with people suffering and even dying from the haze, the truth must be revealed.

Can companies in Singapore help clean up our air by cleaning up their palm oil?

Oil palm yields at least 8 times more oil than other types of oil crops, so switching to other sources of vegetable oil, without changing the destructive practices, may lead to 8 times more deforestation. Fortunately, oil palm can be grown in a haze-free manner. Firstly, to prevent fire from starting, land should be cleared without burning and land-conflict should be minimised so that fire would not be used as a weapon. Next, deforestation and peat drainage should be avoided so that fire-prone landscapes are not created. Finally, fires should be detected and stopped early.

Harvesting oil palm. The palm fruit is numbered so that any problems with the harvest can be traced. Musim Mas, Sumatra.
Harvesting oil palm, Sumatra. © James Morgan / WWF-International

Do any growers actually apply these principles? Even if they claim to do so, how can we verify their claims? One way would be to make use of existing certification standards. We identified the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification as the only widely-available source of certified palm oil for consumer products and food, with 21 per cent of world’s palm oil being certified by RSPO.

But can we trust RSPO-certified palm oil to be haze-free? While more studies need to be done on the impact of RSPO on reducing risk of fire, the evidence so far is positive. In 2015, only 3 per cent of hotspots on palm oil concessions were found on RSPO-certified concessions, even though RSPO-certified area represented 14 per cent of the palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

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In terms of its certification principles and criteria, RSPO generally prohibits the use of fire and hasrules on respecting land rights of local people. There is also some protection for forests and peat swamps although this is limited to primary forests and high-conservation value secondary forests, and a prohibition on “extensive” planting on peatland.

While there have been shortcomings in the audit process, RSPO’s willingness to improve its systems and punish errant members gives us hope. Just last month, IOI, one of the biggest palm oil suppliers in the world, was suspended by RSPO after non-governmental organisations caught three of its subsidiaries violating RSPO’s standards. The suspension created a domino effect as many of its customers terminated contracts with IOI and its share price dropped more than 10 per cent. Indeed, the extra scrutiny on RSPO members may be one of the biggest benefits of certification.

Could cost be a barrier for buying certified palm oil? Surprisingly, information from various sources have revealed that the additional cost of RSPO-certified palm oil is no more than 6 Singapore cents. Indeed, many global companies are moving towards buying 100 per cent RSPO-certified palm oil and are even committing to source from more stringent “zero-fire, zero-deforestation, zero-peat and zero-exploitation” standards such as RSPO-Next.

Meanwhile, none of Singapore’s retailers and consumer goods manufacturers – except for one (AalstChocolate) – are RSPO members.

It is time for companies in Singapore that buy palm oil such as food outlets, consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, to start by at least committing to go haze-free. Consumers can then play a part by supporting these responsible companies. Let’s go haze-free for Singapore!

Additional Note

On Monday 27 June 2016 WWF-Singapore announced the formation of the Singapore Alliance for Palm Oil. The Alliance brings together companies using palm oil in Singapore to help drive the uptake of sustainable palm oil. More information on the Alliance here.

About the Author

Tan Yi Han is from PM.Haze (People’s Movement to Stop Haze).

PM.Haze’s report: “Go Haze-free for Singapore: How companies in Singapore can clean our air by cleaning our palm oil

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