So where's the green in Thailand's green growth?
Yesterday in Bangkok, government officials from Thailand and three of its neighbours wrapped up a meeting with the Asia Development Bank (ADB) which discussed green growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Commuters battle through bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hour in Bangkok. The government’s first-car rebate policy has aggravated traffic congestion in the capital and is contradictory to its pledge to achieve green economic growth. THANARAK KHOONTON
Five years ago, then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak presented green growth as a core component of his country's national economic strategy, arguing that it is a win-win solution; green growth would enable his country not only to better protect the environment but also achieve better economic growth.
Since then, this concept has become popular throughout the world. The World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ADB and many think tanks have released numerous reports on it and advocated that countries everywhere adopt green growth policies. While the exact definitions of green growth vary, it has been unanimously understood as pursuing economic growth while doing more to protect the environment. Cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is one key component.
Given the speeches of its leaders and policy formulations, one might think Thailand is already pursuing green growth. In a meeting of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly last month, the caucus discussed possible integration of a joint green growth initiative. And in a speech in Sweden in March, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra declared: "We need to encourage green growth that will help protect the environment and address the global problems of climate change."
Further, the Eleventh Five-Year Plan 2012-2016 of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) highlights the need for the country to "transition to a green economy and a society that is environmentally friendly". One of its development guidelines is to "promote green production, consumption and services that lead to
[a] reduction of GHG emissions".
However, one might wonder how much this rhetoric reflects reality?
For example, Ms Yingluck initiated a programme that gave up to a 100,000 baht tax rebate to first-time car buyers. The scheme was resoundingly popular: sales under the programme almost totalled 1 million cars. It helped the automobile industry, car dealers and gasoline companies to quickly rebound from the 2011 floods.
However, besides worsening traffic in Bangkok, the policy also increased the country's carbon emissions and air pollution. The 70 billion baht used to fund the rebate could instead have been spent to further expand electric train transportation in Bangkok, a much greener form of transportation.
Another example is the government's energy subsidies. Last year, Thailand ranked 14th globally (US$8 billion per year) in terms of fossil fuel subsidies. While these subsidies help the public, especially the wealthier segment, they also make it more difficult for renewable energy, such as solar and wind, to be commercially competitive, and, in the case of its diesel subsidy, significantly increase air pollution and carbon emissions.
Rather than subsidise cleaner fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas and natural gas for vehicles, a more efficient and greener approach would be to tax dirty fuels, particularly diesel.
Additionally, Ms Yingluck, who has been prime minister now for almost two years, still has not chaired the National Environment Board, which makes important decisions regarding environmental policies. While she is understandably busy and has many priorities to juggle, by not doing so, she has failed to send a strong signal on the importance of protecting the environment.
Further examples abound. From 1992-2006, Thailand was the second-fastest growing emitter in terms of GHG intensity, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions relative to GDP.
However, the country still does not have any GHG mitigation targets, despite climate change being, according to Thai leaders, the main cause of the devastating 2011 flooding.
Also, a recent study revealed that the level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cancer-causing atmospheric pollutants, in Bangkok is more than twice the safe limit. Another study published in April by the American Chemical Society shows the country's rice contains levels of lead exceeding the US Food and Drug Administration acceptable levels. This high level of lead likely comes from contaminated soil and irrigation water. The recently proposed 2 trillion baht infrastructure plan does not emphasise energy efficiency and environmental protection and will probably crowd out other spending once it is passed.
These examples suggest that the country's leaders have mostly paid lip service to green growth while implementing "brown growth" policies.
The question that then arises is why the government makes these hollow promises to pursue green growth? German political scientist Jens Newig suggests that by making such speeches and passing symbolic environmental legislation, politicians in democracies can soften domestic pressure to protect the environment, and can boost their popularity and outwardly demonstrate that their countries observe international environmental norms.
However, examples worldwide show that national leaders can continue to voice symbolic commitments without making any reforms only if the public and other reform groups lack motivation or sufficient information to evaluate the government's commitment.
In Thailand, while reform groups would like the country's leaders to fulfil these pledges, they lack the power base or financial resources to successfully exert enough pressure. Groups in the government, such as the NESDB and the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental, admirably push for these reforms but do not possess sufficient authority and influence to direct other, more powerful agencies to implement them. Nor do they have enough manpower and funding.
Moreover, over the last decade, NGOs and journalists, who act as watchdogs of the government and environmental advocates, have been undermined by the government. For example, last month Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi called civil society groups who planned to oppose his water management plans "garbage" and threatened to jail those who protested at the Second Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai.
The public also gives low priority to protecting the environment. In a 2009 public opinion poll on major problems facing Thailand, natural resource degradation and excess consumption of energy ranked ninth and 10th respectively of the 11 problems listed.
It appears then that, just as in other countries in the region, despite the rhetoric of its leaders, green growth has yet to take root in Thailand. As the impacts of climate change, air and water pollution, and other environmental problems continue to worsen, will Thai leaders finally decide to adopt the green part of green growth? Or will they just maintain the current strategy of growth without the green _ that is, immediate brown growth which harms the environment?
Danny Marks is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Sydney.
University of Hong Kong Assistant Professor
Danny Marks is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong.