Call for uniform air quality indicator in Asean ahead of transboundary talks

This comes as Singapore gets ready to host talks with Asean members in June to develop a second road map for transboundary haze cooperation.

Lynda Hong

Lynda Hong

The Straits Times


May 22, 2023

SINGAPORE – The need for a common indicator to track air quality in South-east Asia has become more urgent, with drier weather conditions and the likelihood of the warmer El Nino weather phenomenon developing in the coming months.

This call from experts comes as Singapore is set to host talks from June 7 to 8 with Asean members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to develop a second road map for transboundary haze cooperation.

Associate Professor Helena Varkkey from the Department of International and Strategic Studies at Universiti Malaya described the development of a common indicator to track air quality in the region as low-hanging fruit.

Asean members must agree collectively on which indicator to use, she said. “The importance is that there will be a uniform number to indicate air quality across the region, not like now, where the number for Singapore and Johor Bahru, for example, can be very different,” she added.

As there are currently no international guidelines on how air quality indices should be computed, Asean countries have adapted different index systems based on their needs and circumstances.

For example, Singapore uses the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), Malaysia has the Air Pollution Index, while Thailand uses the Air Quality Index (AQI).

This makes it incorrect to compare air quality based on one index with that calculated using another index which has a different methodology.

Prof Varkkey, an expert in environmental politics and governance, is among a number of independent consultants from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia who had contributed to a review of the first road map, which focused on strategies towards attaining a haze-free South-east Asia from 2016 to 2020.

The review called for more coordination among countries, as well as quantifiable indicators to measure progress.

These indicators include a decrease in size of transboundary haze pollution area; an increase in the number of days with good or moderate air quality in terms of the PSI or AQI; and a reduction of hot spots to ensure a lower risk of transboundary haze under the Asean standard operating procedure (SOP) on haze.

The SOP spells out common alert levels and the corresponding actions to monitor and respond to the fire and haze situation in the region.

But air quality scientist Erik Velasco said the measurements in Asean countries “are based, to a greater or lesser extent, on the air quality index used in the United States, but each one has its peculiarities”.

In Singapore, where the PSI is used, monitoring stations islandwide measure concentration levels of particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide. PM2.5 was the dominant pollutant during transboundary haze episodes.

For a 135-day period from Jan 1 to May 15, 2022, and the same period in 2023, the 24-hour PSI was in the “good” to “moderate” range on all days.

But around the same period, lower Mekong sub-region countries – Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand – as well as Malaysia experienced episodes of haze due to dry weather conditions and the burning of agricultural waste.

Singapore’s Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment said the meetings in June will take stock of the implementation of initiatives aimed at mitigating transboundary haze in the region.

“These initiatives include the development of the second road map on Asean Cooperation towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control with Means of Implementation,” said a spokesman for the ministry.

“The road map will guide Asean member states in making demonstrable improvements to achieve our vision of a haze-free Asean.”

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), said the first haze road map made good progress on fire prevention and implementing anti-haze regulations. But gaps remain.

“One key is to work with the private sector on environmental, social and governance (issues) and bring in green finance. There needs to be a renewed road map to address set specific targets and standardised metrics across the region.“

He also noted that in the months leading up to the June meetings, Indonesian and Malaysian officials issued warnings about the need to keep forest and land fires in check in 2023, “as we’re facing drier weather in the months ahead and higher demand for plantation commodities in the wake of the pandemic“.

Mr Aaron Choo, SIIA’s senior assistant director of special projects and sustainability, noted that prices for certain agricultural commodities reached record levels in 2022 and remain relatively high.

“These price signals could encourage more activity on the ground, with bad actors using fire to clear land for expansion or replanting,” he said. “And with drier conditions, the real risk is that fires burn out of control.”

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