Filtering through efforts for cleaner air

Filtering through efforts for cleaner air

While a draft law gives authorities more enforcement power, industry wants clear and specific rules

Smog blankets Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. The government aims to use a new law to combat PM2.5 ultra-fine dust.(Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Smog blankets Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. The government aims to use a new law to combat PM2.5 ultra-fine dust.(Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The latest government efforts to tackle PM2.5 ultra-fine dust plan to give authorities real teeth to enforce regulations.

The cabinet resolved on Nov 28 to approve in principle the Clean Air Bill, which empowers authorities to cope with sources of air pollutants, notably the tiny dust that has plagued Thailand annually during the cool season.

The Explainer explores the draft law, businesses' reactions and some solutions to reduce particulate matter.

What is the Clean Air Bill?

Proposed by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Phatcharavat Wongsuwan, the bill aims to reduce air pollution systematically.

According to deputy government spokeswoman Kenika Ounjit, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is to chair a committee on clean air that will direct and initiate policies to control pollutants from four sources: venues such as factories and workplaces, outdoor areas where burning takes places, vehicles and sources of transboundary haze.

To keep levels of pollutants low and meet environmental requirements, the government plans to develop clean air criteria as well as use air monitoring systems and a national air quality database to support its operations.

The bill calls for ad-hoc panels to be set up to deal with air pollution in areas where problems are reported.

Economic tools such as new tax collection for clean air and an air pollution management fee are part of the draft law, as well as new measures to encourage households and businesses to carry out activities to reduce pollutants.

Violations of clean air regulations can lead to civil offences and punishments.

Chalush Chinthammit, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries' Sugar Industry Club, agreed with the bill, but wants a clearer government statement on how industrial operations should be adjusted to align with the new law.

Sugar manufacturing is viewed as being indirectly involved in PM2.5 emissions, resulting from burning of sugar-cane.

How is the government urging sugar-cane farmers to reduce PM2.5?

While the punishments for violators are unclear, authorities have initiated a campaign to curb burning at sugar-cane plantations.

Many cane farmers prefer burning crops because it is easier than harvesting by cutting fresh sugar-cane, which requires many workers.

Sugar-cane farmers lack workers and mostly rely on migrant labour.

The government continues to campaign against the burning method. On Dec 4, the cabinet approved an incentive package for farmers who adopt fresh sugar-cane harvesting for the 2022-23 crop year.

"Farmers will receive 120 baht per tonne of fresh sugar-cane. The money will be handed out from January next year," said Industry Minister Pimphattra Wichaikul.

The campaign, with 140,000 farmers enrolling nationwide, requires financial support of 8 billion baht.

Authorities plan to use a budget from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, she said.

The government has yet to discuss whether the incentive package will be applied for the 2023-24 crop year.

Sugar-cane farmers are scheduled to start supplying crops to sugar manufacturers for crushing on Dec 10.

"We would like authorities to grant the incentives for the 2023-24 crop year, too," said Mr Chalush.

"The recently approved package is for money owed to farmers already participating in the campaign."

Why is PM2.5 targeted in the Clean Air Bill?

PM2.5, which refers to particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter, is harmful dust that comes from outdoor burning, bush fires, ageing diesel vehicles and factories.

Sized one-20th the diameter of a human hair, the dust can easily lodge in lungs, causing severe breathing disorders.

PM2.5 usually affects Thailand in the beginning of each year and lasts for months.

Northern provinces, which struggle with bush fires, are usually prone to high levels of this dust.

Bangkok can be enshrouded in PM2.5, especially during periods of poor air flow, as the capital encounters fumes from heavy traffic congestion.

Mr Chalush wants the government to focus more on solving PM2.5 from the transport sector.

"Burned sugar-cane represents less than 3% of total sugar-cane output," he said.

There were 93-94 million tonnes of sugar-cane in the 2022-23 crop year and the amount is expected to fall to 75-80 million tonnes in the 2023-24 crop year, said Mr Chalush.

During his trip to Chiang Mai late last month, Mr Srettha voiced concern over the impact of PM2.5 on the tourism industry in the province.

He said exhaust fumes increase dust levels, in addition to slash-and-burn farming.

Authorities are also dealing with transboundary haze. According to Mr Srettha, Thailand has begun negotiating with neighbouring countries since September to reduce this pollution, which normally stems from man-made wildfires.

What is being done in the transport industry?

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

Policymakers should start building the EV ecosystem by focusing more on commercial EVs than saloons, which are mostly for personal use rather than a heavy workload, according to the company.

Buses, boats and trucks have large bodies that require a huge amount of diesel to power their internal combustion engines.

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