South Asia and Southeast Asia are both rapidly developing regions. However, economic development often comes alongside environmental degradation, especially if this growth is fueled by the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.
Air Pollution, Fires, and Climate Change
In recent decades, air pollution has become an increasingly serious problem in both regions. Several cities in India, alongside places like Chiang Mai in Thailand and Riau in Indonesia, frequently top ‘most polluted’ lists. While baseline air pollution is already high in these areas, agricultural fires and fires related to agricultural land-use change have been identified as major contributors to seasonal (dry season, harvesting season) air pollution.
Scientists continue to improve their understanding of how air pollution contributes to climate change. One critical link lies in tropical peatlands, found in abundance in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. These carbon-rich forests are important carbon sinks; however, drainage and conversion of these lands into plantations reverse the process and accelerate carbon release into the atmosphere. Drainage also increases the risk of fires.
The changing climate, which may cause prolonged and more intense droughts in South Asia and Southeast Asia, further sustains ideal conditions for fires.
Most governments have identified agriculture-related fires as a priority issue to be resolved due to their dire impacts on social health, the economy, and the environment. However, this has proven challenging: these fires have often been described as a ‘wicked’ problem, one that is almost impossible to solve due to its complex and interrelated nature.
In Southeast Asia, alongside smallholder practises, powerful local and transnational agribusiness companies have been linked to these fires. The sectors linked to these fires have often been identified as nationally strategic sectors by governments, like palm oil, sugar, and corn.
ASEAN has identified the transboundary haze-producing fires as a regional priority since the 1980s. However, limitations of the ASEAN Way mode of engagement, which prioritises economic development, consensus, and non-interference, has often been blamed for the lack of progress on regional cooperation over haze.
In South Asia, India was found to be the largest source of transboundary air pollution. It is important for regions like Southeast Asia and South Asia to engage in knowledge exchange over governance solutions for this ‘wicked’ problem.
Fires and Climate Politics
Agriculture is an integral part of the economy, culture, and society of South Asia and Southeast Asia. The commodities produced on these agricultural lands often make their way to major markets in the West.
Climate consciousness in the West has affected agriculture in the South in complex ways. For example, Western consumers increasingly link palm oil production to environmental destruction. Corporate buyers have demanded ‘sustainably produced’ palm oil. However, there remains an aversion to products containing palm oil among Western consumers. This has resulted in an oversupply of palm oil produced sustainably, but largely unable to be sold as such.
Climate-linked global initiatives like REDD+ operating in South Asia and Southeast Asia to address fires, among other issues, have met with mixed success.
However, recent developments at COP26 in climate financing and loss and damages have been promising in fostering closer understanding between the North and the South over this complex issue. Initiatives based in the South, like Singapore’s Climate Impact X Carbon Exchange, also potentially offer solutions rooted closer to home.
The challenge now is to move towards workable governance solutions to address fires and land-use change in ways that mitigate climate change at a global level, improve public health regionally, and sustain development and prosperity nationally and on the ground.