A toxic haze is hovering over Malaysia this week, snuffing out sunlight, forcing school closures, creating a public-health crisis and contributing to climate change. My apartment in Kuala Lumpur is home to two large air filters that run day and night, and remind me that my young son hasn't been able to safely play outdoors in weeks.
None of this comes as a surprise to locals. Every year, neighboring Indonesia sets late-summer fires on a huge scale to clear forests and farmland. The smoke then drifts over Southeast Asia, lingering for months. It's a perennial disaster. But for decades, the region's governments have failed to address it. Doing so now will likely require a global effort – and the European Union may be perfectly positioned to help.
The annual fires started in the early 1980s, around the time that palm-oil plantations and large-scale commercial logging became dominant industries in Indonesia. What makes them so dangerous is that the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are rich in peatlands, a type of swamp that covers about 3% of the planet's terrestrial surface but contains about 21% of its carbon. When burned they emit huge amounts of toxic, carbon-rich smoke.
In drought years, this can be catastrophic. The 1997 fires – the worst on record – are estimated to have burned as much as 19,300 square miles and put 200,000 people in the hospital. In 2015, fires were responsible for 100,000 premature deaths and emitted more carbon on a daily basis than the entire EU. This year looks to be worse: Between January and August, 1,270 square miles of Indonesian forest and farmland have been consumed, and that's before the peak burn season. Nearly 3,000 fires are currently raging, with little hope that they'll be put out before October.
Indonesia's government has largely failed to confront this crisis. In 2015, President Joko Widodo said that he needed three years to tackle it. Yet the positive steps he's taken – including a moratorium on new palm-oil plantations – clearly haven't been enough. There's not even a consensus on who's responsible for the fires, large agribusinesses or small farmers. And the government has long refused to release documents detailing plantation ownership, boundaries or licenses, even after the country's Supreme Court ordered it to do so in 2017.
There's a good reason for that. A recent audit found that 81% of plantations are flouting regulations. Revealing their details would not only put the owners at risk – Singapore, for instance, asserts the right to prosecute foreign companies and individuals who contribute to haze that drifts into its borders – but also the corruption and patronage networks that allow them to start fires in the first place.
This is where the EU can step in. Anti-palm-oil sentiment runs high in Europe, but local boycotts won't make much difference to Indonesia's forests so long as China remains the world's biggest buyer. A better strategy would be to leverage Europe's considerable trading clout. Since 2016, Indonesia and the EU have been haggling over a free-trade agreement. Both sides want it, but there's little question that developing Indonesia needs it more. With that in mind, the EU should require that – as a precondition for further talks – Indonesia enforce its own Supreme Court ruling and release the plantation data in the interests of product transparency and climate-change mitigation.
Dragging policy disputes into trade talks isn't always a great idea. But in recent years, the EU has been leveraging such agreements to push for climate action with some success. In August, France's Emmanuel Macron threatened to block a deal with the Mercosur trade bloc unless Brazil did more to fight fires in the Amazon. Brazil objected, but the threat generated global attention and placed significant pressure on the government to act.
A similar demand might finally get the attention of Indonesia's government. It would help publicize a regional calamity that's starting to have global effects, and it would surely be welcomed by Southeast Asia's long-suffocating populations. A little transparency, in fact, could go a long way to clear the haze.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.