Is the environment an important election issue?
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Is the environment an important election issue?

PM2.5 and haze is a top priority issue for major political parties.  PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL
PM2.5 and haze is a top priority issue for major political parties.  PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL

As elections loom, we take a closer look at some of the major parties and their key policies towards the environment.

Overall, some of Thailand's more established parties such as Chart Pattana (CP), Democrats (Dems), Palang Pracharath (PPRP) and Pheu Thai (PT) seem to have shown interest in key environmental issues.

Air quality and the PM2.5 pollution problem seems to be a priority. Several parties want to promote alternative transport. The Chart Pattana, Democrats and Palang Pracharath parties promote electric vehicles, while Pheu Thai wants more NGV and biodiesel-powered transportation, yet the confusion over the real causes of PM2.5 pollution persist, with many under the misconception that combustion engines and "dirty" energy production are the main culprits behind the problem.

One of the newest parties, Future Forward (FF), along with CP, Dems, PPRP and PT, all want to promote cleaner fuels and energy production, as well as incentivising the use of public transport. The difference, however, seems to lie with how they want to do it: whereas PT wants to work with the private sector, the Dems and FF are leaning towards market incentives by lowering the cost of public transport, while Chartthaipattana (CTP) wants stricter emission controls.

The crisis of plastic pollution on land and in water is promoted by four of the nine parties, but unfortunately not as strongly as PM2.5. CP and PPRP speak of a "zero-waste" policy but lack detail. The Dems get more specific with measures to apply a plastic bag tax and establish a plastic waste management fund, as well as promoting reusable textile bags and raising public awareness.

Critical topics like PM2.5 and plastic use that are being highlighted by urban campaigners seem to be given more attention, while many rural concerns seem comparatively less important such as floods and droughts, forest degradation and impacts from energy infrastructure, such as coal plants and hydropower.

In relation to floods, only the Dems and PT have offered practical solutions: While the Dems want to create a central database for flood monitoring to improve national flood management plans, PT wants to raise the executive powers of a centralised water management agency to develop a national flood control plan.

Renewable and clean energy, replacing Thailand's highly-polluting coal-fired power plants, along with the impacts of damming the Mekong River, all failed to stir the interest of Thailand's parties. The minor attention to forest degradation -- only three of nine -- and floods -- only two of nine -- shows a rural-urban divide at play.

In terms of solving urban congestion, most parties agree that the answer lies in more decentralisation of infrastructure to peri-urban Bangkok and the provinces. However, details are lacking on how increased urbanisation in regional centres can alleviate the capital's problems. PPRP, Prachachart (PCH), Thai Raksa Chart (TRC), which was disbanded, and Bhumjaithai (BJT) want to focus on creating non-Bangkok-based jobs, to alleviate the congestion issues, while supporting decentralisation.

The Dems, CTP, FF and PT, intend to increase Thailand's overall forest cover as well as the number and size of its protected areas. Their approach is similar as they want to use private sector support to achieve these goals. But whereas the Dems and CTP stick with a traditional top-down approach (zoning, regulation, awareness campaigns), FF and PT offer a more progressive vision of public participation in forest and nature restoration as well as co-existence of people and nature.

There is recognition by governments and United Nations agencies as well as Thailand's civil society that environmental issues depend to a great extent on human rights development and addressing Thailand's extreme levels of inequality for a more sustainable future for our kingdom.

In a welcomed sign for policy dialogue and institutional reform in Thailand, public participation, democracy, human rights protection and inclusiveness and diversity, are at the core of several parties' policies. Gender equality and diversity find mention by CP, Dems, FF, PP and CTP. Some specifically mention LGBTQ rights (Dems, FF and CTP), supporting the elderly (CP, Dems, FF, PPRP, PCH and CTP) as well as the disabled (CP, PP and CTP). As to regional and local empowerment, CP, PP, PT and TRC promote decentralisation of budgets and planning and a more "people-centred" development.

Overall, it seems Thailand's political parties are beginning to listen to concerns about environmental issues even though their focus is limited to immediately visible issues such as air pollution, mainly due to the enormous number of clean air campaigns in the last few months.

Thailand, as this year's Asean chair, has an opportunity to become the regional leader in sustainable development, and in achieving the SDGs for all, instead of trailing behind. The omission of, adaptation to, or mitigation against climate change is telling. For this, the next elected government will have to be seen to take environmental issues much more seriously.

Rajesh Daniel and Clemens Grünbühel work at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia.

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