Bold idea to solve pollution crisis
While 2021's burning season was not quite as disastrous as in recent years, a game-changing solution for Thailand's pollution crisis remains up in the air. Given the complexity of the factors fuelling these fires, a more ambitious systemic approach is required. Neither past regulatory initiatives nor the piecemeal projects and plans of provincial governments and well-meaning NGOs have succeeded. Without a coordinated effort between the major private sector players, innovators and civil society to create viable alternatives for farmers, Thailand will continue to see major damage to its public health, tourism, and environment during the burning season.
To truly eliminate pollution, Thailand requires a solution that uses a monitoring system to measure positive impact and that provides results-based rewards to farmers and their solution providers for "doing the right thing". Such a set-up is created through a multi-stakeholder coordination process and can ultimately be self-funding, with the government being a partner but not necessarily being the steward of this transformation. Civil society and private sector players can drive the creation of new income sources for farmers that will shift behaviours and practices in the right direction, creating new market opportunities and a win-win for all.
The causes of the pollution upcountry have been well documented by several academics, NGOs and media outlets. In short, the pollution is the result of roadside burning, forest fires and, most of all, agricultural burning, both in Thailand and across its borders. With demand for corn-based animal feed rising dramatically over the past 15 years, corn has become a popular cash crop. In the absence of better alternatives, farmers torch the land to clear it for cultivation or to eliminate the heavy leftover agricultural waste. Sugarcane and rice farming -- two other pillars of the agriculture sector -- also involve burning, as does the collection of edible wild mushrooms (which are popular in China) from forest floors. I estimate that these practices release about 100 million tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions into the atmosphere every year.
Identifying the causes of the pollution is one thing: solving the problem is another. Farmers are typically poor, often landless, sometimes stateless, and lack proper equipment. The animal feed supply chain based on corn is now central to the livelihoods of many of them. When companies contract farmers they offer them much needed security in the form of a fixed price for their crops. Thailand cannot choose the path that Singapore has taken when it created a Transboundary Haze Pollution Law which allows regulators to prosecute companies and individuals that cause severe air pollution. Outright burning bans or shaming corporations that provide much needed income and work to the poor are also not realistic solutions.
Instead, let's create a new, transboundary market to avoid pollution. This market would be comparable to the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM), which is quickly becoming a key driver of climate action, as governments fail to act boldly. While such a market requires a monitoring system, trading infrastructure and its own rules and regulations, it does not need to be driven or operated by governments. The impact of quantifiable pollution reduction is measured and audited by private companies or NGOs.
A market mainly operated by the private sector that rewards actors for the results they achieve and that does not prescribe specific actions encourages innovation, collaboration and the formation of new partnerships. The strength of this market-based strategy is that it uses a decentralised approach that can solve the coordination challenge and creates new economic opportunities associated with existing value chains. It would be based on verifiable actions and quantifiable results, reducing the contribution to air pollution in measurable quantities. This market would also create a price signal as a means to incentivise action.
The first step is to create a stakeholder engagement process that brings together the key participants within relevant value chains -- both those who are part of the problem and the solution. Who would be involved? On the one hand, we have the "problem industries", whose demand and non-sustainable production practices trigger air pollution downstream. These include companies demanding corn for animal feed production, export and use; sugar and rice producers; and those exporting valuable wild mushrooms to China.
On the other hand, we have the "solution industries", who may have an appetite to make better use of agricultural waste if there was a reward for doing so. Solution providers include organisations who can help farmers transform leftover crop biomass into biofuel, biofertiliser or even materials for packaging.
For example, Warm Heart Foundation in Chiang Mai has for years lobbied for the creation of a biochar market. Produced from agricultural waste, biochar is a "green" charcoal that is carbon negative. It can be used as a very effective organic fertiliser -- replacing harmful synthetic ones -- and as a fuel source, replacing toxic charcoal. Michael Shafer, founder of Warm Heart, says, "Farmers should not be preached to or blamed. They need to be paid for their labour and offered a viable alternative to burning. If we create a profitable market for biochar, they will see the benefits of changing their behaviour. Otherwise they will stick with what they are doing, to the detriment of their own health and the environment." Companies who help farmers make biochar could also claim carbon credits.
While farmers would benefit from the new income streams supplied by such a system, there are other beneficiaries, such as the health, real estate and tourism sectors. The burden of air pollution on these industries is massive, whether measured in premature deaths, increased hospital admissions, lost productivity, reduced tourism, unsold properties or relocated companies. Their representatives should articulate a demand for units of reduced pollution loads (carbon credits), ideally on a quantified, forward basis. This demand would then trigger investment into the actions that reduce pollution loads, thus creating a supply of such units.
What would the market price for avoiding air pollution units be? To assess this, an understanding of the costs of avoiding air pollution and the value of climate-related emission reductions is required, as well as an understanding of the cost of actions that must be taken to reduce air pollution.
Understanding the cost of reducing air pollution seems more problematic as it is forward looking and is strongly related to the proposed actions. A market, however, will quickly discover the price to inform investment decisions. It is clear that the benefits of reducing air pollution will outweigh the cost of doing so. It is also not unrealistic to assume that at a mid-range carbon price of US$10 (about 310 baht) per tonne of avoided CO2 emissions. Solving the pollution crisis could create a billion-dollar opportunity.
How do we get started? The beauty of such a market is that it can be launched as a pilot and evolve based on lessons learnt. There are already several active players in the north such as Warm Heart, the Thailand Clean Air Network, Chiang Mai University and the Breathe Council looking to solve the crisis. In addition, a hackathon-type approach using open innovation and inclusive participation is a great format to kick off the design process. This approach to implementation might also be a blueprint for other "race to zero" transformations in other sectors. If all of this sounds too ambitious, it is because only a bold new consideration of this complicated convergence of business interests, social and economic factors will truly clear the skies in the years to come.
Ingo Puhl is a resident of Bangkok and co-founder of South Pole, the world's leading climate solutions provider and climate project developer: www.southpole.com