Human Writes: Rising heat on climate change

Human Writes: Rising heat on climate change

A shocking video went viral on social media recently showing a sky drenched a dark blood-red in the middle of the day. This ominous, apocalyptic-looking scene was taken in Jambi province, Sumatra, in late September.

For locals of Mauro Jambi, there was no second-guessing the cause: the haze. Nearby fires had created such a thick blanket of smoke particles that they acted as a filter to sunlight, resulting in a red hue over everything.

In a text with her video post, Twitter user Zuni Shofi Yatun Nisa wrote: “Ini sore bukan malam. Ini bumi bukan planet mars. Ini jambi bukan di luar angkasa… Kami ini manusia butuh udara yang bersih, bukan penuh asap.” (“This is afternoon not night. This is earth not planet Mars. This is Jambi not outer space. We humans need air that is clean, not full of smoke.”)

(The image above was made on Sept 24 in Jambi; though it was taken indoors, that eerie red light is everywhere. Photo: AFP)

To me this was an eerie symbol of one of the region’s worst environmental disasters. How did it come down to this? Haze so severe that it even taints sunlight? And that’s not even the worst of it.

Aside from those deadly, superfine particulates in the haze – which raise the risk of heart disease, respiratory diseases and cancer – the haze also released phenomenal amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the first eight months of this year, some 110 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were released from Indonesian fires, according to a report in September by the environmental site Mongabay. This is roughly half of Indonesia’s annual emissions between 2006 and 2016. Or the equivalent of using 22 million cars for a year.

That’s insane. And this, at a time when countries are supposed to be drastically cutting down carbon dioxide emissions to avert an environmental catastrophe from global warming!

Actually, there is so much that is insane with the climate issue. The science itself is shocking; the politics intractable; and the response from governments? Dismal. That’s why Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and millions of others are calling for change on the streets. The young, who will inherit this mess, realise the urgency.

Already, we can feel the rising heat. The five years between 2015 and 2019 were the warmest yet recorded.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to limit their carbon emissions to prevent global temperatures rising. Yet in 2017, carbon emissions rose by 1.7%, and in 2018, they rose by a further 2.7%. This year, it is estimated emissions will be the highest on record – not helped by the haze, of course, particularly fires on combustible carbon-rich peatlands.

The latest report by top climate change scientists warned that countries must increase commitments to cut carbon emissions significantly – by three times or even fivefold to meet the Paris goals. Yet many countries are virtually doing nothing – certainly not what it takes to really make a difference. Thus the haze continues to haunt us. Connect the dots, people.

Indonesia has actually taken various actions to address the haze, including arresting hundreds and fining guilty firms. But the system has failed to follow through – the sum of unpaid penalties and fines on 10 palm oil and pulp companies since 2013 amounts to a staggering US$1.3bil (RM5.5bil).

But we shouldn’t just wag fingers at Indonesia. Some Malaysian companies have been linked with guilty firms.
We owe it to the world to act on this and truly battle the haze. We should name, blame and shame guilty companies. They should pay for their wrongdoings.

If we continue to connect the dots in climate change, then we must look at coal, a key culprit in carbon emissions. Coal is the most polluting of fuels, also producing deadly particulates. There are many good reasons to become coal-free, not least because we have to within the next decade, to meet the Paris goals.

Yet some countries are still building new coal plants! Indonesia plans to double its coal generation in the next 25 years. Coal is the major fuel source for energy in Peninsular Malaysia because it’s cheap. (But calculations of these costs never include the true environmental costs.) Yet with the falling price of solar energy, and with our hot and sunny weather, we need to look again at solar power. Unfortunately, we are limited by binding agreements with independent power producers (IPPs) that leave us producing way more power than we need.

The need for electricity reform is urgent. It’s time we get rid of skewed sweet deals that serve IPPs rather than consumers or the environment. And last month, we got yet another deal for a new plant in Pulau Indah – a plant we do not need. Where were the protests? Do people even care?

It appears plans for electricity reform have been thrown to the wind – well actually to coal and gas, as we have barely any wind power. If we truly want clean air, it’s time for winds of change.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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