Human Writes: Time for Malaysians to raise heat on the climate crisis

Children get a dose of oxygen from a Red Cross volunteer at a village in Jambi. The blazes have been spewing toxic smoke across South-East Asia, forcing the closure of schools and airports, and prompting Jakarta to deploy thousands of personnel to tackle the fires. Photo: AFP/Tri Iswanto

A shocking video went viral on social media recently, showing a sky drenched in a dark blood-red hue in the middle of the day. This ominous, apocalyptic-looking scene was taken in the Jambi province of Sumatra, Indonesia, in late-September 2019.

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 the sunlight, resulting in everything turning red.

Along with her video on Twitter, 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.”)

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

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

In the eight months of 2019, some 110 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were released from the Indonesian fires (according to a report in September by environmental site Mongabay). This is roughly half of the country’s annual emissions from 2006 to 2016, 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 CO2 emissions to avert an environmental catastrophe from global warming. Actually, there is so much that is insane about 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 on the streets calling for change. The young, who will inherit this mess, know the urgency.

Already, we can feel the heat. The years between 2015 and 2019 are now the hottest on record.

Under the Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to limit their carbon emissions to prevent global temperatures rising. Yet in 2017, emissions rose by 1.7%. In 2018, it rose another 2.7%. In 2019, emissions are estimated to be the highest on record – not helped by the haze, particularly fires on combustible carbon-rich peatlands.

A new report by top climate change scientists warns that countries must increase commitments to cut carbon emissions significantly, as much as three times or even fivefold to meet the Paris goal. Yet many countries are doing nothing – certainly not what it takes to really make a difference.

Thus the haze continues to haunt us. Connect the dots, people.

Indonesia may have taken action to address the haze, including arresting hundreds and fining guilty firms, but the system has failed to follow through. The sum of unpaid penalties 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 them. Malaysian companies have also been linked with the guilty. We owe it to the world to act on this crisis and truly battle the haze. We should name, blame and shame those companies. They should pay for their wrongdoing.

We must also look at coal, a key culprit in carbon emissions. Coal, the most polluting of fuels, also produces deadly particulates. There are many reasons to become coal-free, not least because we have 0nly 10 years to to meet the Paris goal. Yet, some countries are building new coal plants.

Indonesia plans to double its coal generation in the next 25 years. Coal is a major fuel source in Peninsular Malaysia because it’s cheap – though calculations never include its true environmental cost.

With the price of solar energy dropping, and with our sunny weather, we need to look again at solar power. Unfortunately, Malaysia is limited by binding agreements with independent power producers (IPPs) that leave us producing way more energy 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. But in September 2019, we got another deal for a new plant in Pulau Indah, Klang – a power plant we don’t need. Where were the protests?

Do we even care? It appears plans for electricity reform have been thrown to the wind – well, to coal and gas actually because we barely have wind power. But if we truly want clean air, it’s time for the 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 The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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