PM2.5 — The missing ‘sustainable’ in Thailand’s Sustainable Development Goals

After the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect in early 2016, the Thai government has finally taken its first step by targeting 30 out of 169 objectives from 17 of the goals, of which it will proceed to take immediate action for the next five years. Regardless of almost one year of planning, none of the selected objectives address Thailand’s problem of increasing air pollution, specifically particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).

Thailand’s SDG Performance Index shows that the country still scores a 22.4/100 when it comes to “PM2.5 in urban areas (micrograms per square meter or µg/m³)”. According to Greenpeace’s City Ranking of Air Pollution, all 19 areas on the list exceed the WHO guideline of 10 µg/m³, as well as the Thai recommendations of 25 µg/m³. Other indicators that show poor performance include “CO² emissions from energy generation (tCO²/capita)” and “climate change vulnerability”, conveying a clear message about Thailand’s environmental situation.

This indicator on levels of PM2.5 is part of Goal 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”. The Official Statistics Thailand, too, has listed “Population in urban areas exposed to outdoor air pollution levels above WHO guideline values” as an indicator to sustainable development for Thailand. While these measures, as well as all other SDGs — especially, Goal 3: “Good health and well-being”, Goal 13: “Climate action”, and Goal 15: “Life on land” — place great emphasis on air quality, the Thai government has yet to give its attention to the threat that PM2.5 poses to the population.

The SDGs are designed to work along each other — one area improves others, and vice versa. Its purpose cannot be completely fulfilled if only one domain were to advance and leave others behind. To follow the concept, Thailand must aim to achieve not only one goal at a time, but strive to improve each area simultaneously. In this case, PM2.5 needs to be considered an important factor that needs urgent attention and resolution from the government.

To begin action on the global goals, the government has put the SDGs in parallel with its National Economic and Social Development Plan 12 in order to maintain its original direction. The problem with its approach to tackling its development issues, is that it has completely forgotten the word sustainable — and without that word, the SDGs are almost meaningless.

Currently, the government’s intent seems to be only development, in terms of financial growth and resource expansion. The country’s capital stands as a clear example — its idea of development is more cars and taller buildings. What’s missing from the picture is the increased traffic and reduced living space that follows, as well as the worsened air quality and PM2.5 levels that comes along with it.

Development may call for bigger, but sustainable development calls for better. How does Thailand expect to progress, if its people could barely live freely in their cramped homes, let alone breathe freely in their crowded streets?

Join the petition for the right to clean air here.

On Greenpeace Thailand: