PM2.5: Endless deja vu in Thailand

PM2.5: Endless deja vu in Thailand

The 69-metre Buddha statue at Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen temple is seen amid smoggy conditions due to air pollution in Bangkok on March 7. AFP
The 69-metre Buddha statue at Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen temple is seen amid smoggy conditions due to air pollution in Bangkok on March 7. AFP

This past week, two of Thailand's largest cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, earned the ignominious privilege of being among the 10 cities of the world with the worst air quality during that period. The Ministry of Public Health has blamed air pollution for causing 200,000 hospital admissions in the past week alone.

Air pollution is one of Thailand's largest killers, more than obesity, smoking, and even Covid-19. It accounted for over 50,000 premature deaths in 2021, reducing average life expectancy by two years. Further, there is widespread public concern that air pollution will reduce one of the country's main sources of income, tourism, in places like Chiang Mai.

However, despite these grim statistics, this year's air pollution menace and the government's ham-fisted response seems like déjà vu. During the first few months of every year, the level of air pollution spikes to hazardous levels and smog covers the skies.

Every year the government responds by proclaiming a ban on forest fires (but inadequately enforcing this ban), asking people to wear masks and stay indoors, spraying water (which doesn't do much), unhelpfully and incorrectly blaming smallholder farmers, and expressing grave concern about the problem.

But every year the government fails to address the underlying drivers of the problem. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has halted three draft laws related to air pollution.

There was hope the recently-elected Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt would do more to address air pollution at least within Bangkok's jurisdiction. Yet his actions so far have been limited.

The government's actions, however, are not surprising if you look at all of the major parties' platforms for the upcoming election. None has prioritised air pollution, called for wide-ranging reforms, or made air pollution a major part of their campaign.

The Thailand Development Research Institute says that of their 87 major policy promises, only three are environmentally-related. While more data on the sources of pollution would be helpful, it is clear that what the current government has been doing since 2014 (not to mention the actions of previous governments) has not worked.

We know there are three major sources of air pollution in the country: transport, industry, and agriculture, and that pollution is worse in winter months when there is an upsurge in agricultural burning and a temperature inversion resulting in less wind and rain to disperse pollutants.

How much any of these three sources contributes to the total amount varies from month to month and by location. For example, transport and industry emissions comprise a much larger share of total emissions in Bangkok than in Chiang Mai, where the vast majority (up to 90%) of emissions come from agriculture.

Countries who have been able to reduce air pollution show us that while this is a wickedly difficult problem to solve, it is not impossible and there are policy solutions out there which could reduce pollutant levels and improve health nationwide. So, let's look at each of three sources.

1. Transport: In Bangkok, vehicular emissions are high due to the presence of many older, high-polluting vehicles, together with a drastic increase in the number of cars in recent years. To reverse these trends, the government could initiate something like the USA's "cash for clunkers" programme, which provides incentives for citizens to replace older, more polluting cars with newer, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient ones.

A number of cities not only have designated bus lanes but also switched their fleets to new vehicles powered by electricity or natural gas. Both policies could incentivise the public to use public buses more. Finally, cities like Singapore and London were able to significantly reduce their air pollution and traffic congestion by introducing congestion pricing schemes.

2. Industry: Thailand has no emissions inventory database to record industrial emissions, despite having around 140,000 polluting factories. A head of a local NGO told me: "Since there are no emissions inventories from factories, we're working blind." Further, in 2019, the National Legislative Assembly revised the Factory Act 1992 so that only industrial companies with more than 50 employees and machinery exceeding 50 horsepower are subject to monitoring for waste discharge and anti-pollution measures, including air pollution.

Additionally, the authority to fine major polluters rests with the Department of Industrial Works (DIW) under the Ministry of Industry but this creates a conflict of interest since DIW's mandate is to expand industrial growth without any curbs. Thailand needs a law that requires polluting factories to disclose their emissions, such as United States' Toxics Release Inventory and the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register. This new law would make factory permits for operation dependent upon lowering their emissions.

3. Agriculture: While most hotspots of biomass burning that cause pollution inside Thailand are in fact outside its boundaries, a large percentage still occurs within Thailand, particularly stemming from maize, sugarcane, and rice harvesting. Thai agribusinesses have a high degree of culpability for burning in neighbouring countries, such as Laos and Myanmar, due to their investments and introduction of contract farming schemes there.

However, no information has been released on which companies are responsible for the burning and no government has ever held these agribusinesses accountable or penalised them for the burning. A good example Thailand could follow is Singapore's 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act that targets the business sector by imposing fines on companies with operations in neighbouring countries found to contribute to haze pollution within Singapore's borders.

Moreover, the government could insist upon stringent product standards, such as no burnt sugarcane, and could help farmers by subsiding the purchase of harvesting machines and introducing other cleaner production methods.

Overall, while legislation can never be a single silver bullet solution, no country that has achieved cleaner air quality has done so without first having sensible air pollution policies in place. For example, the USA, UK, and Singapore have all passed Clean Air Acts.

The citizen-driven proposed "Thai Clean Air Act" Act provides the tools to address the underlying causes that have so far impeded the resolution of this public health crisis.

The bill adopts a rights-based approach that establishes the public's right to clean air and by doing so concurrently creates an obligation of the state to protect this right.

Finally, it includes economic incentives to push current major polluters to reduce their emissions.

We hope that all parties will show that they truly care about the health and lives of the people and will seek to adopt these policies and enact the citizen-led Thai Clean Air Act.

Other countries have successfully improved their air quality, so why not Thailand too?

Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy at Dublin City University. Weenarin Lulitanonda is a co-founder of the Thailand Clean Air Network.

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