Clearing the Air: Palm Oil, Peat Destruction, and Air Pollution (2015)

Landscape fires in Southeast Asia take a heavy toll on human health and the economy. Increasing demand for deforestation-free palm oil can help reduce the damage.

Each year in Southeast Asia, landscape fires burn out of control, spreading a debilitating haze across the region. This air pollution causes severe damage to human health, claiming over a hundred thousand lives a year—and if current trends continue, it is likely to get worse.

A 2015 UCS report, Clearing the Air: Palm Oil, Peat Destruction, and Air Pollution, explains the role of deforestation and the use of fire for agricultural purposes in producing the deadly haze. The report shows how increasing demand for deforestation- and peat-free palm oil—also important to slow climate change and protect endangered species—can help reduce the incidence of landscape fires and their devastating health impacts.

Fires on peat can be very difficult to extinguish, burning slowly for months or even years due to the depth and organic density of peat soils. (Photo: Wacx/Flickr)

The Root of the Problem: Deforestation and Peat Drainage

Fire is commonly used in Southeast Asia to clear land for plantations producing palm oil, pulp and paper, and other crops. There are bans on the use of fire in agriculture, but the laws are often unenforced.

In recent years, palm oil producers looking for new plantation sites have increasingly turned to peatlands—swampy areas, rich in organic matter, which must be drained as well as cleared for agricultural use.

Drained peatlands are highly flammable, and fires set in peatlands can burn deep below the surface. Such fires may smolder for months or even years, and are hard to extinguish.

To make matters worse, the continued deforestation and drainage of peatlands in Southeast Asia are making landscape fires more frequent and harder to control. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this trend.

These photos, looking toward Marine Parade Road in Singapore, compare the haze conditions on June 21, 2013, to the clear conditions on June 24, 2013. The June 2013 haze event was particularly acute, severely limiting visibility in the region. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Wolcott)

Health Impacts

With landscape fires come air pollution. While many sources of pollution can affect air quality, agricultural burning and the resulting landscape fires are to blame for the worst haze episodes. Recent data indicate that at least 20 percent of the burning—and probably more—can be traced to oil palm plantations.

The haze contains hundreds of chemicals, many of which are damaging to health. Especially hazardous is fine particulate matter, which travels widely, settles out of the air slowly, easily infiltrates indoor air, and penetrates deeply into the lungs.

During El Nino years, when dry conditions make fires especially hard to control, as much as 11 percent of the population of Southeast Asia has been repeatedly exposed to levels of particulate matter well above what the World Health Organization considers safe. Improvised safeguards such as surgical masks or face cloths do not provide adequate protection.

While the majority of people exposed to haze experience no effects or only mild effects such as eye and skin irritation, more severe impacts—such as respiratory and cardiovascular illness—are common. Those most directly exposed to the smoke, such as plantation workers and firefighters, also face increased cancer risk from known carcinogens in burning biomass.

For some unlucky victims, haze episodes are fatal: each year around 110,000 deaths in Southeast Asia are associated with particulate matter exposure attributed to landscape fires.

Economic impacts and international implications

The haze from landscape fires doesn’t just damage human health; it takes an economic and diplomatic toll as well. The health impacts themselves are costly, of course: in 1997 alone, a severe haze event resulted in tens of millions of dollars in health care costs in Malaysia and Singapore, and according to one estimate, nearly $2 billion in Indonesia.

The same 1997 event resulted in losses to regional health, tourism, transportation and other economic sectors totaling between $2.6 and $4.5 billion. Haze events cause transportation slowdowns, accidents, school and business closings, and other disruptions.

These costs and health impacts have also complicated diplomatic relations in the region, as haze pollution does not respect borders. Recent legal and diplomatic progress, described in the report, will provide new tools for combating haze pollution and holding polluters accountable.

This map shows the extent of haze on June 21, 2013, with prevailing winds driving the haze east from Sumatra, Indonesia over Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia. (Source: Adapted from ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Centre.)

Recommendations

Reducing the risk of fires and haze will require a concerted effort on the part of many different actors:

  • Consumers of the thousands of products that contain palm oil need to continue to let manufacturers know that palm oil grown on plantations free from deforestation and peatland degradation is important to them.
  • Companies using palm oil in their products should be able to verify that the palm oil they use does not contribute to deforestation or peatland degradation.
  • Commodity traders must commit to trade only in palm oil coming from plantations that are free from deforestation and peatland degradation, and where fires did not occur.
  • Investors should protect their interests by financially supporting only those businesses that take the necessary steps to limit this public health crisis.
  • Governments should invest in monitoring and enforcing existing bans on the use of fire as a method for land preparation.

Already millions of people have suffered grave damage to their health because of the haze created by palm oil production practices. Given the predicted increase in conditions favorable to haze and a growing population in the region, it is more important than ever to eliminate the use of fire for site preparation, deforestation, and peatland destruction and to transform palm oil production practices, moving toward methods that protect the environment and human health.