New photos of China’s awful air quality make us nervous about coal plant plans

China isn’t exactly known for its pristine air quality, but levels of pollution are nowthe highest ever recorded — up to 50 times the maximum for safe exposure, according to the World Health Organization.

Yahoo reports on the city of Changchun:

Levels of PM2.5, the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health, reached 860 micrograms per cubic metre in the city of around eight million.

The World Health Organization’s recommended maximum is a 24-hour average of 25 micrograms.

“Today’s haze is pretty severe and choking — when I walked out the door I thought someone’s house was on fire,” said one poster in Changchun on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

China’s chronic pollution is generally worse in winter, when power consumption — much of it fuelled by coal — rises along with demand for heating to combat the bitter cold.

The scourge has been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, and has become a major source of popular discontent with the government.

PM2.5 particulates can play a role in heart disease, stroke, and lung ailments such as emphysema and cancer.

This news come soon after the revelation that China is burning up to 17 percent more coal than the government reported, as well as a report by the New York Times that there is a flood of new coal plants in China. There are currently 155 coal projects planned, according to the Times, equivalent to “nearly 40 percent of operational coal power plants in the United States.”

This glut of new construction is surprising — and not a little disappointing — considering China’s recent announcement of the world’s largest cap-and-trade program and its pledges for action ahead of the Paris climate talks.

Recent photos of the air quality in China are shocking — and unless China takes its pledge to lower carbon emissions seriously, it could get a whole lot worse.

Shenyang, No. 8, 2015
Shenyang, Nov. 8, 2015
Reuters/China Stringer Network
Residential buildings are seen shrouded in haze in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Nov. 8, 2015.
Residential buildings are seen shrouded in haze in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Nov. 8, 2015.
A construction site is seen covered in smog in Jinan, Shandong province, China, November 10, 2015.
A construction site is seen covered in smog in Jinan, Shandong province, China, Nov. 10, 2015.
Residential buildings are seen surrounded in smog in Jinan, Shandong province, China, November 10, 2015.
Residential buildings are seen surrounded in smog in Jinan, Shandong province, China, Nov. 10, 2015.

4 ways to STOP Indonesia’s forest fires

Blogpost by Bustar Maitar – 2 November, 2015 at 12:405 comments

A brief spell of rainfall in Indonesia has minimised the number of fire hotspots that have been broadcasting toxic smoke across the country…for now. Here are four ways to #StoptheHaze…once and for all.

13-year old sister holds her 7-month old brother who is suffering from a respiratory tract infection13-yr old sister holds her 7-mth old brother who is suffering a respiratory tract infection

It’s been labelled a “crime against humanity”. The “biggest environmental crime of the 21st century”, and most certainly the “worst climate crisis in the world right now.”

Since August, forests have been set alight to make way for plantations – a practice that has been happening for decades. But this year’s El Nino means that conditions are extra dry, leaving toxic smoke to lay and linger. To make matters worse, about half of these fires are taking place on peatlands, which are a major global carbon storehouse. In recent days, the rate of carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires has outstripped the entire US economy.

Brief rainfall this week in Sumatra and Kalimantan has provided modest relief, but the crisis is far from over. The fires and smoke will return so long as companies are destroying forests and draining peatlands, and the government is lax on enforcing its policies. Here’s how we can stop this devastating disaster…once and for all.

Military help extinguish the fire of burning peatland inside the Orangutan conservation area in Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province, Borneo island, Indonesia
Military help extinguish the fire of burning peatland

1. Stop forest clearance…NOW!

FACT: stopping forest destruction is one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to prevent catastrophic climate change. It’s estimated that this year’s haze will cost Indonesia’s economy US $14 billion.

All agricultural commodity suppliers must immediately stop forest clearance and any further development on peatland; they must be monitored and held accountable for any potentially dangerous and illegal activities.

A couple guard their rubber tree plantation to make sure it doesn't catch fireA couple guard their rubber tree plantation to make sure it doesn’t catch fire

2. Re-flood, repair, regenerate

Last year, President Jokowi vowed to protect peatlands and showed his solidarity by damming a canal to stop the drainage of a peat forest in Sumatra. Since then, the area has hardly been affected by this season’s fires.

Last week he repeated the same vow, calling for a moratorium on licensing for peatland concessions after at least 10 people died due to respiratory illnesses caused by the smoke. It’s time for President Jokowi to stick to his promise.

Re-flooding and implementing other water management measures in critical peatland areas can sharply reduce fire risks – a solution Greenpeace has proposed for years.

Firefighters extinguishes the fire of burning peatland Firefighters extinguishes the fire of burning peatland 

3. We know what you did last summer…and we have the maps to prove it

Greenpeace researchers looked at 112,000 fire hotspots recorded from August 1 to October 26, 2015, which showed nearly 40 percent of fires had occurred inside mapped concessions: land granted by the Indonesian government to companies for logging or plantation development.

There are many concessions where fire hotspots are indicated in mapping analysis, but our research also indicates that the company associated with the most is Asia Pulp & Paper.

This is not surprising. Firstly, they are the largest concession holder in Indonesia and have a legacy of deforestation. Secondly, they are the only company that has released accurate maps showing where their own, as well as their suppliers concessions are.

However, the government has recently refused Greenpeace’s request to make public the latest concession maps for analysis. Other companies have released very little information about their land holdings and the concessions that supply them, which makes you wonder – what do they have to hide?

A hornbill is seen from a tree where the air is engulfed with thick hazeA hornbill is seen from a tree where the air is engulfed with thick haze

4. Fight fire…by working together

The only way to stop these fires is to stop deforestation. Greenpeace is calling for palm oil and paper companies to join forces and enforce a total ban on forest clearance and peatland development in Indonesia. Companies could make this happen. After all, if corporations have the ability to destroy the world’s forests, they also have the power to help save them.

Want to help #StoptheHaze once and for all? Take action and sign up here.

Bustar Maitar is Head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Indonesia Says Tough to Set Haze Deadline With Fires, Weather

Indonesia, which set a deadline two weeks ago to put out forest fires that have covered parts of Southeast Asia with haze, said it’s difficult to push for a timeline with farmers still burning to clear land and unpredictable weather patterns.

“I can’t give a date,” said Willem Rampangilei, head of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Authority. “It depends on the weather. I will try my hardest and try to be as quick as possible.”

President Joko Widodo’s recent trip to Sumatra island for a progress check was cut short as the smoke was so thick his plane couldn’t land, forcing him back to the capital.

Exacerbated by dry conditions from El Nino, the haze has blown across Southeast Asia, blanketing Singapore, parts of Indonesia and Malaysia in a smog that has caused these areas to close schools and suspend outdoor events. In parts of Indonesia, people were forced to flee their homes.

“One challenge is that farmers are still burning,” Rampangilei said. “We all know that burning is cheap and makes the soil more fertile.”

Open to Help

Indonesia has threatened to punish the palm oil and other plantation companies whose land is ablaze and send soldiers in to help fight the fires. The country has turned down offers from Singapore and Malaysia to help, in part because its own helicopters couldn’t take off because of the smoke.

“We are not allergic to outside help,” Rampangilei said. “We are happy to get offers. But we have to see how much that assistance can actually be deployed.”

In Singapore, a banking group has embarked on a review of ethical lending practices as the haze envelops the city for a fifth week. The Association of Banks in Singapore said Monday its members are working on measures that will improve responsible lending, without spelling out specifics, while the central bank said those guidelines will be issued “soon.” Only four major banks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have embedded environmental factors as part of their credit-decision process, the World Wildlife Fund said in a May report.

Jokowi’s maneuverability is limited by a decentralized system of government put in place in 2001 in the world’s largest archipelago that has coalesced power around local officials and potentially made it harder to tackle corruption on the ground. There’s also been little effort over the years to address a complex system of overlapping land permits where forest is illegally burned to claim ownership and increase the value to sell for plantations.

Singapore Shuts Schools, Cancels Events as Haze Worsens

The city skyline at Marina Bay as buildings in the central business district stand shrouded in smog.
The city skyline at Marina Bay as buildings in the central business district stand shrouded in smog.
Photographer: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg

Primary and secondary schools were closed in Singapore on Friday as the three-hour pollutant standards index reached the year’s high of 341 at a 5 a.m. Singapore time reading. The gauge receded in the afternoon before rebounding to 162 as of 7 p.m., well into the “unhealthy” level, according to the National Environment Agency. A reading exceeding 300 is classified as “hazardous.”

“If it lasts long enough, domestic retailers and commerce will show visibly reduced earnings,” said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based economist at Barclays Plc. “After that, it has to last long enough for people who have booked trips to Singapore to cancel. There’s still a sense this is temporary.”

Layer of Haze

Smoke from Indonesian forest fires has shrouded the city-state with a layer of haze in the past few weeks. Data compiled by Global Forest Watch showed a concentration of fires in parts of Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan, driving the air quality of cities located in the areas to hazardous levels.

“The weather pattern would play a role to whether you would be in a stagnant situation like what we are experiencing right now, or it could be flushed out due to strengthening winds from cleaner sources,” Gabriel Lau, an earth system science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Indonesia’s enforcement of its laws against plantation owners is key to resolving the problem, Singapore’s Environment MinisterVivian Balakrishnan said in an interview a week ago. The smog also led the flights disruptions across Southeast Asia.

The minister identified four Indonesian companies that may be linked to the fires on a Facebook post on Friday. The environment agency has also served Asia Pulp & Paper Co. in Singapore with a notice seeking information on its units, as well as measures taken by its suppliers to put out fires in their Indonesian concessions.

Economic Pressure

“The Singapore government is currently examining how to apply more economic pressure against errant companies,” Balakrishnan said.

A Singapore nationwide music test on Friday has also been postponed until Tuesday, the Ministry of Education said. Some international schools including the Swiss School in Singapore were also shut. Junior colleges and universities will remain open. Sports Hub, the city-state’s new stadium, will suspend all outdoor activities.

“This is the first time I’m experiencing the haze first-hand. Today it really has worsened, you feel that,” said Gokulnath Durai as he walked along the Singapore River wearing a face mask yesterday, which the tourist from Chennai, India said was “a precautionary measure.”

Free Masks

Singapore will also distribute N95 masks to “vulnerable and needy” citizens and permanent residents across 108 community clubs on Friday, the environment agency said.

Indonesia last week set a 14-day deadline to extinguish fires in Riau, and a 30-day target for South Sumatra and Jambi. The government has detained suspects in companies in various parts of the country.

“We stand ready to assist Indonesia in combating the fires,” Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in his Facebook post. “Last year, we introduced legislation to allow us to prosecute companies found to be causing or contributing to the haze. And we will not hesitate to take such actions against those errant companies.”

Air Quality in Singapore remains unhealthy due to haze

UPDATED: 11:08 PM, SEPTEMBER 15, 2015
 SINGAPORE — Showers in the late morning and afternoon brought a brief respite from the haze today (Sept 15) with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels dipping in the evening, although air quality remained at unhealthy levels.

As at 11pm, the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was 108-127 while the three-hour PSI was at 108. Air quality is considered unhealthy when the 24-hour PSI is between 101 and 200.

Hazy conditions can still be expected tomorrow, and may worsen if denser haze from Sumatra is blown in by unfavourable winds, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) in its 7pm update. The 24-hour PSI for the next 24 hours is expected to be in the mid to high sections of the unhealthy range, and may enter the low section of the very unhealthy range (201-300) if denser haze from Sumatra is blown in.

Healthy persons are advised to avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion. The elderly, pregnant women and children should minimise outdoor activity, while those with chronic lung or heart disease should avoid outdoor activity. Persons who are not feeling well, especially the elderly and children, and those with chronic heart or lung conditions, should seek medical attention.

Earlier today, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a statement that it would adjust outdoor activities and training of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen according to the haze situation. It has PSI-Activity Guidelines, formulated for the SAF population, that are consistent  with the National Environment Agency’s health advisories.

For 24-hour PSI reading below 100, activities will continue as per normal. When the 24-hour PSI is above 100, the SAF will adjust physical and outdoor activities accordingly to limit servicemen’s exposure to the haze. The guidelines take into account servicemen’s medical fitness and the nature of activities.

The SAF will also issue N95 masks to servicemen performing essential outdoor duties when the 24-hour PSI reading exceeds the very unhealthy range.

Adding that SAF training has largely continued, the statement said that “MINDEF/SAF remains in close contact with the Indonesian authorities and the SAF stands ready to support and assist Indonesia when activated”. Indonesia earlier accepted Singapore’s offer of assistance, but later said it has sufficient resources of its own for now.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Singapore Navy also said  in a Facebook post that its vessels will be continuing patrols in Singapore waters despite the haze reducing visibility to less than 0.5 mile.

The YouTube channel uploaded a video today, in Hokkien and with English and Mandarin subtitles, giving tips on how Singaporeans can take care of themselves and the elderly during this haze period.

South East Asia’s haze – social media reacts

The Haze – annual air pollution caused by forest burning in Indonesia – is back across parts of South East Asia, and social media has once again been flooded with complaints about the filthy skies.

From memes to citizen campaigns, Facebook and Twitter users in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have not held back when discussing rising pollution levels.

“Guess who’s back, back again – the haze is back, tell your friends,” commented a Twitter user in the Malaysian capital city, Kuala Lumpur, putting a smoggy spin on an Eminem song.

Another musically inspired tweeter made reference to Jimi Hendrix’s famous rock anthem ‘Purple Haze‘.

Purple Haze all in my brain, lately things don't seem the same, actin' funny but I don't know why..Image copyright@steve_sps

Other users, however, made light of the situation by sharing jokes and memes.

The haze will turn your sashimi into smoked salmonImage copyright@JoachimGomez

“The haze will turn your sashimi into smoked salmon,” tweeted Singaporean radio personality Joakhim Gomez.

One rather cute meme being shared widely on Facebook, the most popular social media site in Indonesia and Singapore, showed a “fiery birthday celebration”between the countries’ flags, with Indonesia ignoring pleas to blow out the increasingly violent looking flames of its birthday candles.

Meme about the hazeImage copyrightSocial media

The meme also proved highly popular on Twitter – although it is not clear who created it.

‘Burning haze’

For many years, the annual smog been at the centre of heated diplomatic debate between Indonesia and Singapore.

Singapore has confronted Indonesia about the burning of land for palm oil plantations in Sumatra.

Indonesia, however, has argued that it is unfair to blame it alone for the forest fires.It named Singaporean firms earlier this year it said had roles in contributing to the pollution.

Firemen work to contain burning wildfires in South Sumatra, Indonesia on Saturday, 5 September, 2015Image copyrightAP
Image captionEvery year, Indonesian forest fires affect those in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia

Some citizens of both countries have launched online campaigns to combat the haze.

Indonesian cartoonist Dhany Pramata, 23, shared a drawing on Twitter using the hashtag #masihmelawanasap [‘Still fighting the haze’] to emphasise that there was still “no concrete solution” to the problem.

The hashtag was also used more than 1,300 times on popular photo-sharing app Instagram.

“It has been two months. I can smell the burning haze, I’ve suffered from dizziness, eye irritation, out of breath even inside the house,” Mr Pramata told the BBC’s Indonesian Service.

‘We breathe what we buy’

A Facebook page from Singapore also called on people there to acknowledge responsibility for the air pollution.

Facebook pageImage copyrightFacebook

“It’s the usual blame game between farmers and officials, politicians and other politicians. So we decided to help instead of just complaining about why it started,” said 30-year-old financial consultant Tan Yi Han from Singapore.

Together with a group of friends, Mr Tan started an online campaign in 2014, accompanied by a dedicated Facebook page called, “The People’s Movement to Stop Haze”.

“We realised that we as Singaporeans, must do something about palm oil and paper as we use both on a daily basis. So we breathe what we buy,” Mr Tan told the BBC.

The Facebook page aims to share haze-related articles and also gathers pledges of support for sustainable palm oil.

“During the haze period, there is always a lot of chatter on social media. We wanted to actively respond to all these emotions, frustrations and uncertainties so we use Facebook to share what we know and re-direct them to our campaign.”

Reporting by Heather Chen in Singapore and Christine Franciska in Jakarta.