Waiting to exhale

Waiting to exhale

While the Clean Air Act offers a positive first step, more state effort is needed to deal with chronic haze

Bangkok's hazy skyline viewed from the King Power Mahanakhon skyscraper in the Sathon business district.
Bangkok's hazy skyline viewed from the King Power Mahanakhon skyscraper in the Sathon business district.

During the dry season in recent years, people in many provinces, particularly those in the hilly North, have endured seasonal smog, spending more time indoors with an air purifier to avoid the air pollution.

Public frustration intensified after a 28-year-old doctor in Chiang Mai shared his experience of being diagnosed with lung cancer even though he's not a smoker.

The young doctor, Krittai Tanasombatkul, is now in palliative care and said he might not live more than one month.

Earlier this year, he asked on his Facebook page, which has 758,000 followers, why PM2.5 remains a persistent problem that the authorities have not solved, leaving people to struggle as they buy air purifiers or face masks.

The Clean Air Act, which regulates the integrated management of clean air for health, is regarded as one solution that can systematically tackle the issue of toxic haze.

With warnings about recurring PM2.5 levels expected in the coming months, which could be more severe than past years, both the public and private sectors are pressing the government to enact the long-delayed act as soon as possible.

The country has long been plagued by problems stemming from critical pollution caused by activities across many industries. This means government efforts alone might not achieve much without assistance from the private sector.

Dr Krittai raises important questions about why persistent PM2.5 pollution has not been reduced. Photo courtesy of Facebook

MORE THAN A LAW

Businesses selling eco-friendly products regard the state's latest effort to ensure clean air as a good move, but believe legislation alone cannot solve air pollution, especially PM2.5 ultra-fine dust.

Other new measures are needed to deal with the harmful level of tiny particulates that affect Thailand every year, they say.

The government should introduce measures encouraging motorists to shift from diesel-powered cars to battery-run vehicles, said Amorn Sapthaweekul, deputy chief executive of Energy Absolute Plc, a renewable energy and electric vehicle (EV) developer and operator.

The Clean Air Act is expected to help curb the amount of PM2.5 from various sources, including bush fires, farm clearing and ageing diesel engines.

Diesel engines are a serious concern in big cities, especially Bangkok, which has severe traffic congestion.

Earlier this year, the capital was enshrouded in dust, causing Bangkokians to wear masks and city officials to spray water to tamp down the particulates.

The Pollution Control Department announced the situation would improve when strong winds arrived from the South.

PM2.5, which refers to particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can easily lodge in the lungs, causing severe breathing difficulties.

Reducing the number of diesel-powered vehicles can solve the dust problem at its root, said Mr Amorn, but it is not easy for motorists and transport operators to shift from internal combustion engines to EVs, which are still pricey.

This requires government measures that can ensure people have the right to clean air, he said.

Mr Amorn expects people to use electric mobility technology because batteries will be developed to enable EVs to operate for a longer distance per charge, while battery prices will fall as increased production leads to an economy of scale.

Gloyta Nathalang, Bangchak Corp Plc's executive vice-president for corporate branding communication and sustainability, also welcomed the government's attempt to pass the new law to promote clean air.

The company plans to help the authorities to curb PM2.5 levels by selling "low-dust fuel", she said, referring to a new type of diesel developed to meet the higher environmental emission standards of Euro 5.

The government plans to enforce the Euro 5 standard from Jan 1, 2024.

Commuters wear N95 face masks to avoid inhaling PM2.5 dust particles in Bangkok. Somchai Poomlard

STILL OBSCURE

Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said there should be more representatives from the agricultural sector in management committees to ensure broader coverage.

The current draft of the Clean Air Act requires four management committees to be set up, but members comprise mainly government, civil society and private sector representatives at both the policymaking and management levels, selected via the chamber and the Federation of Thai Industries.

In addition, Mr Sanan said the draft act's content is broadly open to interpretation, allowing certain individuals to exploit it for their own benefit.

More importantly, he said the draft does not specify a clear definition or identify the types of toxic substances.

This might present challenges for the private sector in adapting and regulating production processes, potentially allowing pollution creation to continue, said Mr Sanan.

"We expect the act, once implemented, will specifically impact the transport sector, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs]. If there is strict regulation and penalties for releasing emissions, it will directly affect them," he said.

These SMEs still rely on fossil fuel-based transport and are not yet ready to transition to alternative energy or using EVs.

The cost of shifting to EVs remains high and the incentives for such changes are not attractive enough to encourage this transition, said Mr Sanan.

Regarding a specific section in the proposed legislation that holds accountable those responsible for sources of air pollution outside the national borders, he expressed concerns about the potentially lengthy process required to establish liability.

Mr Sanan illustrated this concern with the case of a Thai private company that encourages neighbouring nations to cultivate agricultural products for export to Thailand. When the harvested agricultural waste is incinerated, it emits air pollutants that traverse borders.

Moreover, these stipulations could result in private companies refraining from procuring agricultural goods from neighbouring countries.

This could lead to a deficit of raw materials in the domestic supply chain, he said.

Mr Sanan said business operators must adjust their operations to take responsibility for sustainability and society.

Initially, this adjustment might incur higher costs. However, with clear promotion measures, changes can occur rapidly, he said.

A file photo shows the Bangkok skyline and Chao Phraya River from Phra Pok Klao bridge. A toxic miasma hangs in the air. Apichart Jinakul

READY TO COOPERATE

Nattakit Tangpoonsinthana, chief marketing officer of Central Pattana Plc (CPN), a retail and property developer, said the company is examining the implications of the Clean Air Act, but is prepared to implement strategies aligned with the government's plans.

"We are committed to understanding how the Clean Air Act might affect our costs as we strive to develop plans that align with environmental objectives. Preserving the planet and mitigating health risks for customers is paramount. We are prepared to adhere to regulatory requirements, as we already practice energy conservation initiatives and other eco-friendly measures. However, the challenge lies in finding a suitable third party to assess air quality," said Mr Nattakit.

"We do not know how the act will affect our costs if we have to implement measures to align with new requirements."

While awaiting the specifics of the Clean Air Act, he said CPN has focused on energy efficiency within its complexes.

The company is also promoting EV chargers across all its retail complexes, said Mr Nattakit.

CPN is exploring introducing oximeters at select locations, he said.

A file photo showcases a blanket of smog in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

TARGETING THE ROOT CAUSE

As Chiang Mai's tourism image has already been tainted by PM2.5 smog, the government must pass the Clear Air Act because it should help to tackle the root cause and benefits all stakeholders, said Sittipong Wongsomboon, general manager of Northern Smile Travel, a tour operator in Chiang Mai.

Mr Sittipong said there is growing concern among tourism operators as foreign tourists perceive Chiang Mai as one of the most polluted provinces every smog season.

He said tour package sales rates were flat during March and April, when the level of PM2.5 peaked in Chiang Mai.

Smog in the province is mainly attributed to slash-and-burn farming practices and wildfires in national parks, though emissions from vehicles also contribute to the choking air quality, said Mr Sittipong.

He said the government should focus on decreasing agricultural burning by offering incentives for farmers, such as increasing purchasing contracts with those who can reduce burning to a certain level.

Mr Sittipong suggested farmers should be encouraged to shift to organic farming or planting crops that do not require ground burning to prepare a plot.

As organic farming often has higher costs, the government should help farmers match their products with buyers, markets or restaurants, to complete the supply chain, he said.

Local officials should prepare tools and technology to prevent or mitigate the impact of wildfires, as Chiang Mai is frequently slow in dealing with wildfires, attributed to insufficient manpower and tools, said Mr Sittipong.

An EV subsidy is also needed, he said. For instance, if tour services use EVs for tourists, they could apply for a tax reduction.

Molpasorn Shoowong

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