Hazardous smog is once again badly affected the country, with Bangkok recently ranking as having some of the world's worst air pollution. Thailand's air pollution problem caused about 32,000 premature deaths, according to information from the State of Global Air 2020, while World Health Organization (WHO) estimated effect of air pollution can reduce life expectancy in the country by two years.
The major sources of the smog are emissions from the agriculture, transport, and industrial sectors. The government has thus far been unable -- or even unwilling, to curb emissions from each sector.
We have identified four major shortcomings which inhibit the government from successfully dealing with this issue.
First, there is no clear framework to address clean air from a policy perspective. This issue starts with the lack of specific legislation on clean air, and is exacerbated by the lack of regulatory oversight. As a case in point, the Pollution Control Department (PCD), which is responsible for monitoring and controlling pollution. In practice, the PCD has a limited legislative mandate and budget to effectively address air pollution. According to its legal mandate, its main duty is to monitor and report PM2.5 and other air pollutants; it does not have the legal authority to punish polluters or even order other government agencies to act. For example, the PCD can report polluting, but cannot stop or penalise them; only the Department of Industrial Works (DIW) which falls under a different ministry, can do this. Thus, under its current guise, the PCD cannot undertake meaningful actions to curb pollution.
This policy void creates conflicts among various government agencies in addressing air pollution. For example, the DIW's primary objective is to promote industrial growth, while its other conflictive role is to control industrial pollution. In practice, the latter often becomes neglected. Also, the lack of coordination between agencies and the sheer number involved without a clear delineation of responsibilities when dealing with air pollution weakens their capacity to resolve an issue which requires strong collective action. For example, when a Thai NGO representative complained to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) about diesel truck pollution, BMA officials claimed it was not their responsibility. Her subsequent telephone calls to the PCD, the police, and the Department of Land Transport yielded similar comments. "They are throwing the hot potato around," she lamented.
Second, the government's long-held prioritisation of economic growth over environmental protection as reflected in policy actions often conflict with the official narrative on sustainable development. Numerous examples demonstrate this. The government's postponed adoption of Euro 5 standards was made to reduce the impact on the economy. Other examples are the government's recent revision of the Factory Act 2019 that provides evergreen factory operating licences and the promotion of the Eastern Economic Corridor which would add multiple industrial factories and increased air pollution near to Bangkok.
However, as examples from other countries show, addressing air pollution does not necessarily curb growth nor does it hurt the poor's income levels. Instead, national leaders seem to use this narrative as an excuse to protect vested interests who benefit the most from activities causing air pollution, such as the automobile companies, agribusinesses, and factory owners, and to deflect blame for their inadequate response.
Third, limited public awareness of the health risk of air pollution in the past had eased pressure on the national government to respond to this problem. Past actions (or inaction) by authorities could perhaps be misconstrued as attempts to keep the general public in the dark. As an example, the PCD had PM2.5 data for over a decade but refused to include it as a pollutant in Thailand's National Air Quality Index (AQI). For many years Greenpeace Southeast Asia pressured for this to happen but to no avail. The tipping point only came in late 2017, when Bangkok's air quality deteriorated significantly. Only after a widespread public backlash with many using social media to openly express anger and frustration did the PCD relent. PM2.5 was added to Thailand's National AQI only in September 2018.
Fourth, another problem is Thailand's lax national air quality standards. The threshold levels adopted for PM2.5 are much lower than WHO recommended levels, as well as those accepted in neighbouring countries.
These are the Pollution Control Department's (PCD) has used "safe" threshold of PM2.5 -- set at a 24-hour average of 50 microgramme per cubic metre (µg/m³), twice as high as the World Health Organization's (WHO) 25 µg/m³ threshold.
In response to these shortcomings, a number of civil society groups have been formed to address this problem. One such group, the Thailand Clean Air Network (or Thailand CAN), a group of volunteers, seeks to reduce air pollution by addressing these underlying structural issues. To this end, Thailand CAN drafted a different version of the Clean Air Bill which is citizen-driven and has garnered over 24,000 signatures from the public signifying their approval of the law. According to Thai law, a minimum of 10,000 signatories from Thai nationals is required for any citizen-driven bill to be eligible for the Thai parliament to consider. This bill is based on the analysis of various Clean Air Acts in other countries, such as the US, UK and Singapore, while being customised to the Thai context.
This bill addresses the four aforementioned shortcomings. First, the PCD will be reorganised with the air pollution division becoming part of a newly created Clean Air for Health Organization (CAHO) which will operate in a much more integrated manner and in way that is much more in line with environmental protection agencies in other developed countries. This agency will ultimately fall under the purview of a high-level committee, chaired directly by the prime minister. The Joint Committee members will comprise a 50:50 split between government and civil society representatives, the latter of whom can act as a check-and-balance against powerful vested interests.
Second, the bill was drafted based on an ethos of protecting every Thai citizen's inalienable right to breathe clean air. The polluter-pay-principle is embodied through taxes, penalties and fees on all sources of air pollution. Internalising air pollution as a cost consideration is a proven strategy used to reshape the behaviour of the private sector and government agencies and can lead to the prioritisation of air pollution prevention over short-term brown growth. The bill also addresses transboundary air pollution and has a penalty clause for Thai entities who contribute to transboundary haze.
Third, the bill will ensure that the public is better informed of air quality in the country. The bill orders state agencies, particularly the CAHO, to collect information on air quality in order to develop a database and then make this information publicly available.
Finally, the master plan to be created under this bill will elevate the standard of clean air for health including the national air quality index. This index will be based on internationally accepted standards. Also, the public will be allowed to participate in helping set standards.
Unfortunately, like other citizen-driven legislation in Thailand that have gone beforehand, the passage of the Clean Air Bill will likely be an arduous process. As an example, the passage of another citizen-driven legislation on community forest management was a 30-year process with the resulting legislation being a shadow of its original form.
Our collective health will suffer if a similar outcome awaits the push for new air pollution legislation. The key factors of successful clean air movements globally, including those in China and the US, have been the will and tenacity of ordinary citizens who refused to stand idly by but instead pushed for needed governance reforms, regardless of the country's political system. Greater public awareness of this problem is therefore critical to expedite the resolution of this problem. Thai citizens need to collectively demand that the government uphold its duty to protect their right to breathe clean air. Only a groundswell of public support for this bill will enable victory over air pollution.
Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy at Dublin City University. Tanachai Suntonanantachai is Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law at Huachiew Chalermprakiet University. Danaiphat Bhogavanija is a human rights lawyer and Coordinator of the Thailand CAN legal drafting team.