Indonesia's Wildfires Are as Bad as Some of the Planet's Worst Air Polluters
They’ve burned for weeks, producing toxic smoke that has blanketed much of Southeast Asia and caused air quality to plummet. But just how bad is the pollution generated by the wildfires raging across Indonesia?
Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 14, the fires—which are allegedly being intentionally set by businesses looking to make a buck producing palm oil—may have produced more air pollution than Germany does in a calendar year.
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Although Germany has one of the worst air pollution problems in Europe, try this on for size: The pollution generated from the fires is also greater than the single-day emissions of the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases on the planet, the United States.
That’s the startling finding of a team of researchers led by Guido van der Werf, a scientist at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Van der Werf and his team estimated the amount of air pollution being produced by the fires using data from previous blazes in Indonesia.
They calculated that the more than 100,000 blazes that have burned Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands this year generated more than 1,102 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, in 2013, the entire United States generated 6,673 million metric tons, according to the EPA.
Thanks to the suffocating haze created by these fires, schools across Indonesia—and its neighboring nations, Malaysia and Singapore—are closing intermittently when pollution levels spike. Battling the blazes has been exceptionally difficult for firefighters this year because the island nation is a tinderbox. While El Niño creates wetter conditions on the West Coast of the United States, it leads to drought in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, the arrival of the monsoon in the region has been significantly delayed by El Niño, and Indonesia has been hard hit by the lack of rain. Farmers have suffered extreme crop losses, and in the ultimate irony, given the role the industry allegedly plays in setting the fires, palm oil production is expected to drop.
Van der Werf’s team found that more than 4,700 fires were burning in Indonesia on Oct. 14 alone. It seems an improvement in air quality shouldn't be expected anytime soon.
"Unless there is rain, there is no way human intervention can put out the fires," Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the natural resources and environment minister in neighboring Malaysia, warned on Monday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.