Air quality in Singapore has soared to what is generally considered “hazardous.” Over the last week, air pollution readings in Singapore ranged from 268-320 on the Singapore National Environmental Agency’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). For reference, 0-50 on the PSI is healthy, 101-200 is unhealthy – a measure above 300 is considered hazardous.

Moreover, on September 22, air pollution readings at Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, reached 1,986 on the same index.

Throughout Southeast Asia, air quality has become a major issue as a result of annual forest fires across Kalimantan and Sumatra. For 18 years, large pulp, paper and palm oil plantations have farmed the peatlands there, burning surrounding forests and biomass to clear space for expansion. Peatlands are wetlands with a thick water-logged organic soil layer (peat) made up of dead and decaying plant material – and they are carbon-rich, containing twice as much carbon stock as the entire forest biomass of the world, according to Wetlands International.

Authorities in Indonesia and neighboring countries are taking action, yet the fires continue, with over 1,100 hot spots identified along the Sumatran coast just two weeks ago. Given the environmental damage and human health risks, these fires need to stop immediately. One solution to clearing the biomass without fire may be to harvest it and use it for second generation biofuels.

Second generation biofuels turn non-food crops, and non-edible parts of plants into fuel. For example, stems, leaves, husks, trunks, branches, grass, woodchips from agriculture, skins and pulp from fruit processing, can all be used to create advanced biofuels. Rather than open burning, the companies that are suspected of illegally setting the blazes, could harvest the trees and peat and convert it into biofuels without the environmental or human health impacts caused by fires. This is not to mention the fact that the end result is that we’ve made use of these unused resources in the form of fuel, rather than destroying them.

Indonesia was ranked the world’s sixth worst emitter of greenhouse gasses in 2014, and while it represents the world’s 4th largest population, the developing nation only achieved a status of “newly industrialized country” in the same year, raising concerns about sustainable growth. Meanwhile, more than 1.5 million students have been sent home from school closures in Malaysia due to air quality issues from the fires.

1997 was one of the worst years of the fires, estimated to have cost the Indonesian government $20.1 billion. The Singaporean government is estimated to have lost $9 billion that year through increased healthcare costs and disruptions to air travel and business, according to a study in Ecological Economics.

Beyond lowering costs to the government, removing and harvesting the forest and peatlands could also create jobs in these rural areas and generate revenue for local communities: Specifically jobs in biomass collection, plant operation and various downstream industries.

Using these materials to create biomass and feedstocks for second generation biofuels would create cleaner, renewable fuels that could be used locally or around the world in countries like the U.S. or Brazil. When juxtaposed against the economic, environmental and health crises that these fires create, the way forward is clear. For example, when Malaysia published the National Biomass Strategy 2020 it pointed out that the potential to generate 66,000 jobs and additional $10 billion USD per year in income by 2020. It stands to reason that the potential is higher for Malaysia’s larger neighbor Indonesia.

While extinguishing the fires is the top priority for Singaporean, Indonesian and Malaysian governments now, that collaboration should not stop once the immediate danger has passed. Together they can lay the foundation to prevent these fires next year and harvest these materials for use as feedstock in second generation biofuels to benefit of their people, grow their economies, protect the environment and become more energy independent.

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Bas Melssen

Heading up the Biomass Conversion business development efforts for Novozymes in Asia Pacific (excluding China). I’ve been living/working in the Asia Pacific region since 1997. I like solving complex problems in weekdays by engaging with multiple stakeholders and spending time with my family in the weekends.