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Haze or not, we can do more for clean air in Singapore


Hazy conditions in Singapore's Central Business District on Friday (Sept 13). The authors say that even without the haze, the air quality in Singapore is not always good.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA). The Act and favourable wind directions could explain why it is only now that Singapore has begun to experience bad air and warnings of haze in the dry season.


There is a common misconception that Singapore’s air quality is fine as long as there is no haze. While publicly available data indicates that pollution levels, particularly fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, are not extremely high, they exceed international thresholds for good quality every day.


One research project done based on data retrieved daily from the National Environment Agency website between June 2014 and August 2016 found that during these 27 months, the mean maximum hourly PM2.5 concentration across Singapore exceeded 20 microgram per cubic metre every day, regardless of transboundary haze.


The World Health Organisation’s annual mean guideline is 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

In other words, even without the haze, the air quality in Singapore is not always in the good category. Much needs to be done to make our air cleaner. How can we do so?


REVIEW THE THPA

From a Singapore perspective, the THPA may appear to have mitigated the haze from Indonesia. Empowering individuals in Singapore to sue for damages due to the haze was aimed at countering the accusation that companies here are behind the haze-causing fires in Indonesia.


Indonesians, however, perceived the Act as pointing the finger at them for the fires. Such a perception has hardened the attitude of the Indonesians.


Singapore could mitigate such a perception in Indonesia. For example, some companies are allowing communities around their concessions to burn their land. Such acts fall outside the THPA, which holds companies and their employees liable.


Indonesian law, however, holds such companies responsible if there are fires within 5km of their concession. Perhaps the THPA could be amended to recognise successful prosecution under Indonesian law.


That is, a company that has been convicted in Indonesia might also face the threat of civil suits in Singapore. Some steps to work with the Indonesians would be helpful both practically and diplomatically.


Responding to the 2015 haze episode, the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS), issued its first guidelines on responsible financing in October that year. Two years later, in January 2017, the ABS appended to the guidelines a kit detailing how banks should require all their borrowers in the palm oil, pulp and paper industries to manage haze and fire risks.


The kit has been updated to also prohibit the financing of companies “involved in open burning for land clearance”. Banks should assess all existing and new clients and monitor them on an ongoing basis.


CURBING EMISSIONS FROM SHIPS

Meanwhile, we have some steps we should take to improve our air quality year round. In the southern part of Singapore, right where the Greater Southern Waterfront is supposed to be, air quality can be bad because of pollution from ships anchored nearby.


The initiatives in place as part of the Maritime Singapore Green Initiative to tackle the ships’ emissions are all worthwhile.


But the drawback is these measures are voluntary and do not fully address the ships’ impact on air quality.


In many Western countries and Hong Kong, ships have to switch to burning cleaner fuels when they enter territorial waters. We should do the same.


REDUCING TRAFFIC POLLUTION

On an average non-hazy day, traffic pollution is one of the significant causes of air pollution that is within the realm of control in Singapore. This can be seen when there is a traffic jam due to a bad accident in the Bukit Timah area.


Although this area is a largely green, residential and away from heavy industries, the air quality index during such times can cross into the “unhealthy” category.


Artificial intelligence and cameras should be used to ensure a smoother flow of traffic. Yes, there are parts of Singapore where there are traffic light green waves. But in many other parts, one feels as if one is lurching from one red light to another.


Speed humps should be reduced. Research in Europe a few years ago has shown that such humps increase pollution. Cars slow down before them and then accelerate, generating pollution. In the Clementi area, one of us counted 11 speed humps from an apartment to the main road and nine from the Pan-Island Expressway exit to a school in Nanyang Technological University.


Carparks in some public housing estates need to be looked at so that cars do not have to drive to higher floors to park because the lower floors are reserved for season parking. Such driving adds to pollution.

Singaporeans who spend much of their time indoors in airconditioned buildings would likely not notice that the air quality is moderate as opposed to good.


But we must understand that the effects of air pollution are cumulative. The particles that get into the lungs are difficult to get out.


The Government, businesses and Singaporeans can all take steps to reduce air pollution and the harm to our health.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Benjamin Tay is the executive director of PM Haze, a non-profit group set up to find solutions to the root causes of haze. Ang Peng Hwa is a professor of media and communication at Nanyang Technological University and is the administrator of the Facebook group Haze Elimination Action Team that aims to help individuals sue under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

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