Haze and Climate Change

By Wong Chen, Subang MP

This article is rather timely as the haze that blanketed Malaysia for most of September 2019 has finally receded. However the fires are still on-going in Indonesia as I write; we are merely being spared by the change of wind direction. The haze problem is not new; it has been going on since 1997. However this is the first haze under the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. How PH deals with this matter will add on the on-going debate whether the New Malaysia is real or just fiction, that it is the same as the Old Malaysia.

At start, I wish to stress that I am not an environmentalist, but am a public policy technocrat and former corporate lawyer. I have continuously and consistently voiced my critical views for one year (since May 2018) on the need for reforms. Like most of you, I am also still awaiting fundamental reform actions by PH. During this wait, I was asked by the Parliament Speaker in July 2019 to do more ASEAN related work, and in doing so, I chose the issue of climate change.

Since then, I have steadily shifted my policy focus from Malaysian reforms to environmental economics, carbon pricing and all matters regarding climate change. The last time I was a committed environmentalist, was during my university days, 30 years ago when I was a registered supporter of Greenpeace and Oxfam. So, in a personal way, I am probably going through a self-re-awakening on environmental issues.

Malaysia needs a trans boundary haze legislation to be enacted as soon as possible. The ASEAN platform is simply not effective. ASEAN already has multiple agreements, declarations and policies to deal with the haze. Despite these positive actions, yet we continue to suffer the haze. So the root of the problem is not in the so called ASEAN doctrine of non-interference, because ASEAN did in fact cooperate and took many concrete steps. The root of the problem is to do with the political will of ASEAN governments to oppose and regulate corporate interests. As such, the PH government must redouble and triple its efforts to fight corporate interests, in particular on environmental matters.

We need a trans boundary haze law, like Singapore but updated with some major improvements. The drafting of such a law need not take years, as we can use the The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 of Singapore as a template. The legislative drafting work should only take weeks at most. To overcome the ineffectiveness of the Singapore law, Malaysia must legislate to enable the government to utilise satellite and geo-spatial data to establish a case against corporations. Once the government can reasonably prove via these satellite images that a Malaysian corporation is culpable for the haze, then we can immediately charge the said corporation. The law should be drafted so to put the onus of proving innocence on to the corporation. In other word, we must tweak the burden of proof to favour the people and not the corporations.

On the further issue of culpability, we must also extend this to forests burnt by smallholders, whose subsequent produce are then sold to nearby corporations; to feed the corporate owned mills. In other words, the produce of the burnt forest lands should never ever be allowed to indirectly benefit corporations.

My above proposal is not an attack on the palm oil industry, but is in fact an enhancement against corporate greed. I have no quarrel with the industry and am of the view that any plantation developed pre Kyoto Protocol must be considered good and β€œhalal”. However, we must have a strict policy to regulate palm oil expansion, for the sake of stopping climate change. In addition, in no circumstances should these expansions be allowed via open burning. The corporations are supposed to mulch and recombine the organic matters into the soil. Setting fire to a forest is completely indefensible and is nothing more than pure and evil corporate greed.

On the matter of carbon pricing, I have submitted a Parliament question to the Ministry of Environment. I will report when I get an answer in the next sitting, which starts on 7th October 2019. My proposal for carbon pricing is in a form of a carbon tax on the power producers. It is also based on the Singapore experience, where their power plants have to pay an additional tax so to fund climate action activities. In Malaysia, power plants are responsible for 70% to 80% of our CO2 emissions. Thanks to the previous crony governments, power plant tycoons also enjoy super lucrative profits. Therefore they have no moral excuse whatsoever, not to pay a little bit of carbon tax to fund our own climate action. I wait to see if the PH government has the political will to give a small slap on the wrists of these tycoons.

Lastly, on another matter of climate change, I refer to the UN Special Rapporteur report of Professor Philip Alston. Professor Alston noted that our officials in state and federal levels consistently ignored and paid no attention to climate change. He concluded that the β€œcurrent economic planning appears to be blithely proceeding as though climate change is a matter of community education, rather than requiring deep changes in official policies”. In other words, climate change is not even a factor in the current PH government policies. This is sad and in my opinion, this tidak apa attitude is even worse than the mishandling of the Lynas issue.