Bungling govt is losing the PM2.5 war

Bungling govt is losing the PM2.5 war

A shroud of hazardous ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles covers the Bangkok skyline on Tuesday. (POST TODAY)
A shroud of hazardous ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles covers the Bangkok skyline on Tuesday. (POST TODAY)

Almost a month since hazardous ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles began shrouding the capital, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha finally flexed his muscles this week by pledging to ban vehicles emitting black smoke from entering the city.

"If dust levels exceed 100 microgrammes per cubic metre [µg/m³], the government will take over and everyone will be affected," the prime minister told the media after a mobile cabinet meeting in the far South province of Narathiwat.

I have to confess I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I heard the PM's announcement.

It seems odd that our prime minister decided to wait until air pollution became a serious hazard to health before acting. Why did he not take prevention measures earlier to avoid this crisis? Why did we need to wait until air quality is so bad that it warrants such tough measures?

Instead of waiting for PM2.5 -- dust particles of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter -- to reach health-damaging levels, the government should scrap Thailand's current "safety" threshold of 50µg/m³ and adopt an internationally accepted limit. The World Health Organisation's (WHO) safe upper limit for PM2.5 is 25µg/m³. If that's too low, the government could adopt Singapore's 35 µg/m³.

Over the past few years, environmental conservation groups such as Greenpeace Southeast Asia have lobbied the government to use a more stringent PM2.5 standard.

Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said cutting the PM2.5 safe level would inject a sense of urgency into society, prompting greater public awareness of air pollution while enabling law enforcers to crack down on the culprits, including pollutant-spewing factories, drivers, and farmers who burn their fields.

Instead, Gen Prayut has rightly been criticised by the public and the media for not doing enough to tackle the air pollution.

At this point, it would be unfair to accuse the government and prime minister of doing nothing to curb the crisis. Last year, the government did good work to reduce PM2.5 after declaring war on the hazardous dust. The problem is that its battle plans were not turned into action.

In February last year, the previous government, also led by Gen Prayut, announced that solving the PM2.5 crisis was now a national agenda. It took until October for the current cabinet to approve action plans for that agenda.

Among them are deadlines for adoption of environmentally friendly standards of vehicle emissions and fuel products, which should lead to a reduction of PM2.5 pollution. These include a 2021 deadline for the introduction of the European (Euro 5) emission standard, a zero-burning policy for sugarcane farmers by 2022, and limiting the sulphur content in fuel to 10 parts per million by Jan 1 2024.

The problem is that these plans remain just that; none has been translated into action yet. Worse, some planned measures have even been toned down to avoid upsetting the already fragile economic growth.

A glaring example is the amount of sugarcane from open-burning farms that sugar mill operators are allowed to buy.

The sugarcane industry has become a major source of PM2.5. To save time and costs, farmers burn their sugarcane fields for quicker harvesting and transport of their crop to factories. This is currently the cheapest and fastest way to harvest and supply their produce.

Though it is illegal to do so, most sugarcane farms -- which cover about 12 million rai in total -- set fire to their crops before harvesting.

From November to April each year, sugarcane fields across the country go up in flames.

Smog from the burning is a major source of PM2.5, which is blown by the wind from fields to cities -- including Bangkok.

Despite this, the government's national agenda and plans to ban open-burning and limit mills' purchase of "burnt sugarcane" to 20% have been watered down. The cabinet last November surprisingly approved a request by mills to relax the measure and increase the quota to 50%.

The revision sent a negative message. While authorities battle to cut forest fires and biomass burning, the government has just approved a policy that encourages mills and factories to purchase sugarcane products derived from irresponsible harvesting.

The PM2.5 crisis is not just the government's national agenda. It is also a major challenge for PM Prayut's bid to prove he has what it takes to be a dependable leader. So the government needs to take an active role to solve the problems at the policy level.

Instead of waiting for the air pollution to rise and then prescribing short-term measures like water spraying and air filters to reduce the toxic dust, the government needs to expand its focus to development policies.

To cut PM2.5 levels, it needs to do more than spray water, shutter polluting factories and impound black-smoke vehicles. It needs a development policy that leads to more green spaces, town planning that allows dust pollution to disperse more easily, and architectural designs that reduce heat. It also needs to encourage more people to use public transport such as trains and buses.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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