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Getting from (PM)2.5 to Zero: The Gaps that Remain

Roadshow Recap from Session Stop #5, October 7

อ่านภาษาไทยที่นี่

For the past 2 months, Circular Design Lab (CDL) and Thailand Clean Air Network (Thai CAN) have been coordinating the“From PM2.5 to Zero” Digital Roadshow to share knowledge and expert opinions about air pollution problems in Thailand. From the previous webinars in the series, it is evident that the problem has been with us in Thailand for many years and is one with far-reaching impacts in almost every corner of society.

One of the challenges of tackling this complex problem is the plethora of gaps that remain in data and monitoring, resource availability, and national policies and legislative measures to truly tackle the problem at its source. This is the main topic of the 5th installment in the Digital Roadshow organized by CDL and Thai CAN on 7 October 2020, featuring experts in environmental economy, industrial pollution, forest fire, and trans-boundary haze.

Assoc.Prof.Dr. Witsanu Attavanich from the Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University, one of the lead environmental economists from Thai CAN, started the discussion with a look into one major cause of metropolitan air pollution: vehicular emissions. Specifically, Dr.Witsanu discussed Thailand’s challenges with upgrading its fuel emission standards from the current Euro-4 to Euro-5 which would mandate a five-fold reduction in sulphur content in the fuel — from 50 parts per million (50 ppm) to 10 ppm — thereby significantly reducing emission-based pollution.

The question is why it has taken such a long time for Thailand to upgrade its standards to Euro-5, which now stands scheduled for 2023. Dr.Witsanu suggested that one of the causes is the significant increase in production cost, which will either have to be borne by fuel manufacturers or passed to consumers in the form of an increased fuel price unless the government provides subsidies. Additionally, the ability to cost-effectively produce higher-standard fuel in the country does not yet suffice for consumers’ needs, with the current production level standing at a mere 5% of what is required.

However, another undeniable major challenge is the lack of clarity from the central government in its policy to support the introduction of Euro-5 standard. There is yet to be a definite policy with respect to the allowable fuel price nor the clear willingness to provide subsidiary funding using the nation’s fuel fund in order to maintain accessible price for consumers.

Ms. Penchom Saetung, Director of the EARTH Foundation and Thai CAN’s industrial emission expert, continued the discussion with another set of gaps in addressing industrial pollution in Thailand; a problem that affects many factory-filled areas in the central and eastern region of the nation. Ms.Penchom began by sharing about the existing regulatory measures trying to curb industrial emissions. These include environmental impact assessment (EIA, EHIA) requirements before the opening of the factory, legal regulations while the factory is in operation, and establishment of special committees and temporary measures during air pollution crisis.

While the current industrial emission regulatory framework seems to be well-structured, one major gap is the lack of comprehensiveness and effectiveness of those measures. This is evident in the EIA regulation, which mandates an assessment of only a few pollutants while PM2.5 dust consists of hundreds of contributing matters. Many types of factories and businesses also do not actually fall under the EIA regulation, and thus are able to operate without environmental impact assessment. Additionally, Thailand notably lacks a publicly accessible database of pollution sources, or a Pollution Release and Transfer Register (PRTR), which makes it almost impossible to effectively identify and control pollution at its sources.

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The lack of transparency and comprehensiveness in regulatory measures is compounded by the complexity of regulatory structure in the country. This is evident from the contrast between the sheer number of legal regulations related to dust and pollution “enacted” and the ever-worsening PM2.5 problem over the years. Instead of providing effective measures to stem pollution,the disconnected regulations have created a complex structure consisting of several government entities working in silos with minimal coordination and lack of authority to actually enforce the measures.

Continuing on from the gaps in fuel emission standards and industrial emission regulations, Dr.Veerachai Tanpipat, forest fire expert from the Forest Research Center, Kasetsart University, joined the conversation with a view from Northern Thailand, an area regularly suffocating from forest fires. Dr.Veerachai pointed out that one of the most significant contributors to the problem is the conflict between the city and the rural areas, heightened by the inappropriate policies and measures mandated from academic and/or government leaders without true understanding of the local context. Such measures often force farmers out of their livelihoods without any alternatives. This is compounded by the lack of support structure to enable local administrations, arguably the government entities most integrated with local areas, to be part of the solutions.

Apart from solving the conflicts between central government and local people, the utilization of academic knowledge in combination with local context is also important. Dr.Veerachai noted that Thailand has had more than 30 years’ worth of knowledge on fire and smoke behaviors; this knowledge must be used in conjunction with local wisdoms to create pollution control and prevention measures that are feasible, effective, and appropriate with the local areas. It is also important that the design of the measures need to come from true understanding of the people, for “as long as [policy designers] cannot engage effectively with local communities, they will never know what the true causes of forest-burning are”.

One of the key points made by Dr.Veerachai was the utilization of academic knowledge in support of policy and measure design, an ethos shared by Mr. Matthew Perkins, Economic Affairs Officer, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UN ESCAP). Mr.Perkins supported Dr.Veerachai’s statement by sharing results from machine learning-based analyses of air pollution, which definitively highlight the difference between pollution found in Chiang Mai and pollution found in Bangkok. The results further strengthen the importance of taking local context into consideration when designing measures to combat air pollution.

One of the significant contributors to air pollution in Thailand, based on satellite data analysis, is the trans-boundary haze from neighboring countries. This trans-boundary haze, largely due to biomass burning in the neighboring agricultural areas, causes not only air pollution especially in the north but also the rift between local farmers and the central government highlighted earlier by Dr.Veerachai. The data quite evidently suggests that, despite a no-burning decree being ordered on the local farmers, the air pollution persists due to the unchecked trans-boundary haze from surrounding countries. In the meantime, local Thai farmers are getting blamed as the culprits with no alternative.

The gaps that remain discussed by the experts are seemingly insurmountable. However, solutions are possible but they will only come following the inspiration to act by the government; the inspiration that can be driven by the collective push from the people. As Ms.Weenarin Lulitanonda, co-moderator and co-founder of Thai CAN, noted; “The inspirations to solve air quality issues, no matter what type of governance the countries have, have always been driven by the people — people who do not tolerate getting their rights to breathe clean air taken from them.”

One of the ways in which Thai citizens can drive the sustainable fulfillment of the gaps is by exercising your rights to support the Draft Act on Regulating the Integrated Management of Clean Air for Health, the first integrated Clean Air Act in the nation’s history which Thai CAN had worked on and is now in the process of collecting 10,000 supporters to propose it for parliamentary reading (read more about the process here). Thai citizens interested in supporting can learn how to do so here.

As for the next activity in “From PM2.5 to Zero” Digital Roadshow, meet us on Wednesday, after work, on 28 October at Bangkok 1899 from 5:30–8:30pm! Stay tuned for details at right2cleanair.com

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