Accelerating to sustainable development or sliding to decline?

Thailand is one of Southeast Asia’s leading economies, but its economic development has been achieved at the expense of human lives and the environment. The country’s race toward “progress” began in the 1960s with relentless deforestation for teak and timber, followed by agricultural expansion for rice and rubber, and then rapid industrialisation in the late 1980s and ’90s with toxic and hazardous technologies.

This dominant paradigm of development at any cost, for the most part excluded the country’s most important stakeholders – Thai citizens and communities -and diluted legislative and regulatory environmental measures. Predictably, this has led to the unprecedented poisoning of air, water, agricultural fields and the rich fishing waters of the Gulf of Thailand, posing serious dangers to the health and livelihoods of millions of Thais.

Currently, Thailand’s centrepiece for this single-minded pursuit of development is Map Ta Phut industrial estate. Established in 1988, the estate is part of a government policy to develop the Eastern Seaboard.

The government touts this sprawling complex of petroleum refineries, agrochemical, plastic and PVC factories, iron and metal manufacturing facilities, and coal and gas power plants, as a vital engine that keeps the wheels of the country’s economy running.

But the story is different for the tens of thousands of Thais living around this compound. Even with just the simple act of breathing, they are putting their entire lives at risk. Map Ta Phut is perhaps the most toxic place in Thailand.

The rapid development of the industrial sector and the formation of industrial clusters in the Map Ta Phut area have brought about environmental and occupational health management problems such as air pollution, shallow-well water contamination, evaporation of organic compounds and water resource shortages, all of which to this day remain unresolved.

The incidence of cancer cases around this area is higher than in any other place in the Kingdom. A Greenpeace study in 2005 revealed that people in Rayong province are breathing cocktails of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, 60 to over 3,000 times higher than health standards in developed nations. A test on fly ash samples taken by Greenpeace in 2005 from the BLCP coal plant project in Map Ta Phut showed contamination from a range of substances toxic to humans such as mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic and nickel.

The continued of expansion of coal plants and energy-intensive industries in Map Ta Phut also contribute to climate change, which is projected to catastrophically affect the country.

However, evidence of health and environmental problems have not diminished Map Ta Phut’s role as an economic hub. On the contrary, the industrial estate is gearing up for expansion, and worse, the government is showing signs that is keen to replicate the “success” of Map Ta Phut. Plans are ongoing to build similar industrial estates, together with more coal power plants, and nuclear plants, along the country’s southern seaboard.

Such plans are going ahead even while human health and environmental impacts of the showcase project remain unaddressed. And in this respect the government is hard-pressed to assure its citizens that it values the interests and well-being of the Thai people.

The case of Map Ta Phut shows that the Thai government’s unchecked race toward industrialisation favours dirty development and victimises resources essential for economic sustainability. Such resources – people’s livelihoods and health, and the natural ecosystems and biodiversity on which these depend – are sacrificed for short-term prosperity that benefits only a very small sector of society.

Clearly this is a development paradigm that is unjust and unsustainable. The belief that human and environmental health is the price to pay for progress is in fact the root of the most critical humanitarian and environmental crises that many developing countries, including Thailand, are facing now. It is a paradigm that locks nations in a vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation that is contrary to any concept of development.

But, Thailand is in a position to break away from this cycle of decline if it acknowledges that there is a model of development that is sustainable and just. This is the model of development which communities across the Kingdom – from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumpon and Surat Thani to Rayong – are calling for and catalysing. Thailand must shift gear toward a green and sustainable development model.

The current crisis offers a unique opportunity for laying the foundation for a greener and fairer economy, but if and only if we can infuse economic structures with democratic and participatory principles. To avert further ecological degradation, to adapt to the affects of changing climate and to ensure sustainable development requires technological leapfrogging, bold policy innovations and a new solidarity across social classes and generations.

It is also critical that new investments prioritise options that will strategically liberate our society from the treadmill of carbon-intensive and fossil-fuel-based systems. While job creation is essential, a meaningful solution to today’s problems lies not in simply restarting the engine of consumption. That approach led to the degradation and depletion of the planet’s resources even as it failed to meet the basic needs of the majority of humanity.

And so, as the government is looking at ways to stimulate the economy, it is critical that such economic interventions are also sustainable for the planet and especially for Thailand’s future.

The Thai government must prioritise and support green investments that will help put Thailand on a low-carbon growth pathway, instead of maintaining and carrying on with investments that propagate climate-changing emissions and aggravate ecological and humanitarian crises.

The role of a sound environment is increasingly valued for reducing disaster risks and protecting livelihoods. Healthy ecosystems provide natural defences to human communities by regulating hazards, while degraded ecosystems can increase exposure and reduce community resilience.

In inaugurating the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Our lives depend on biological diversity. We stand to lose a wide variety of environmental goods and services that we take for granted. The consequences for economies and people will be profound, especially for the world’s poorest people. We need new vision. And new efforts. Business as usual is not an option.”

Voting season needs political will for climate action

Climate change has already hit the Thai psyche. Almost every public opinion polls and surveys in the past years have been pointing in the same direction saying climate change and global warming are high on the Thai mindset , whether or not it is associated with sense of urgency, awareness or simply riding on a trend driven by corporate advertisements. Apart from that Thai people are increasingly aware of the possible affects of climate-change related events such as floods, , sea-level rise leading to coastal erosion in Bangkhuntien area, high incidence of infectious diseases such as dengue fever and Letrospirosis.

In May 2007, over 36 organizations representing almost all sectors – government, media, private sector, entrepreneurs, NGOs and other civil society groups endorsed the Declaration on the Cooperation for Alleviating Global Warming’ in Bangkok. The declaration was supposed to kick start the implementation of the 5-year Action Plan for Global Warming Alleviation (2007-2012). The action plan set a bold target to reduce carbon emissions of Bangkok city by 15% by 2012 with different approaches ranging from improvement of transportation system, promotion of alternative energies, energy conservation , building retrofit, solid waste and wastewater management to expansion of green area.

Now it is time for Bangkokians to cast their votes again to elect a new Bangkok governor and all the candidates are busy showing off their green credentials. And as expected, when the Thai society of environmental journalists organized a conference on “New Bangkok Governor’s Environmental Management Vision”, climate change was high on the agenda of all the major candidates.

Bangkok metropolis like other megacities of Toronto, London and New York is one of the major source of carbon emissions, all of which have started implementing its climate action plan last year. If the current governor of Bangkok-Mr Apirak Kosayothin- is able to retain his post, Bangkok Climate Action Plan should not only be continued but also has to be realigned to gain momentum in order to achieve the targets and practical outcomes. What is going to happen with the climate action plan if we get new political leader is a question that everyone should be asking. It might be changed, re-prioritized, improved or scrapped. That is really depending on political will of the one who is elected, given the fact that environmental policies of other major candidates are not very different.

Since the Nobel Peace Prize-wining Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put the final nail in the coffin of global warming skeptics last year (2007) as Ban Ki-moon Secretary-General of the United Nations has put it, new scientific findings pointed it out that the climate system seems to be more sensitive to the effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations that previously estimated. Climate scientists worldwide are calling for urgent action : global carbon emissions has to peak by 2015 and cut by far more than half by 2050 in order to prevent disastrous climate change from happening. Last but not least, climate change conference in Bali has set the road for a new agreement to be concluded in Copenhagen in December 2009. If we want to avoid disastrous climate change to happen, we will need a very strong and very ambitious agreement to be made by all countries.

In this context, Bangkok Climate Action Plan, if we do it right, will set a good practice in helping world community to combat climate change. The next Bangkok governor, regardless of who it is , will have to exercise the leadership by placing ecological imperatives at the heart of city’s social and economic policy and development. The aim should be to not increase inequity but instead reduce the gap between political elites, consuming class and urban poor, as well as, ensuring participation of impacted communities in decision making processes on mitigation and adaptation options and assist these communities in funding and implementing climate adaptation measures.

In the run up to the election of the new Bangkok governor, all citizens must remember that casting vote is to endorse not only the best political will but defining the future of our Bangkok in the warming world. Collective action is the only way out of the imminent crisis facing us.

Time for Energy Revolution in Thailand

The embattled bureaucrats in Thailand’s Energy Ministry may not be enjoying their jobs much at the moment, with the country in the grips of an energy crisis and the weight of responsibility falling squarely on their shoulders.

In their low moments they would do well to remember the Thai people who have already suffered from wrong energy choices, especially the communities living in the shadow of coal-fired power plants and those suffering the impacts of climate change, caused by past dependency on fossil fuels.

Of course we can’t entirely blame the Energy Ministry bureaucrats for all of our energy woes or for the carbon emissions that cause global warming. Successive governments, who have failed to show the leadership needed to formulate and implement an energy policy to give Thailand and her people a better future, must bear the biggest responsibility for leading the country down the wrong energy path. Last year, the Government of Thailand planned an increase in the country’s dependence
on dirty fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear technologies.

The Government’s energy choices in the coming years will determine our environmental and economic situation for many decades to come, in light of the growing threats of climate change. Thailand’s people are already suffering from climate impacts such as reduced agricultural production, extreme droughts and floods, and local communities have been slowly poisoned by polluting coal power plants. Coal is the most polluting of energy sources. However much you wash and scrub it, or attempt to bury its emissions, it still remains dirty and toxic, damaging local communities and exacerbating climate change.

Under the government’s proposal, however, up to 31 more new smoke-belching coal plants are planned.

It is time for an energy revolution, a massive shift from highly polluting coal power plants to renewable energy. This is the surest way to ensure future energy stability for the country because the power of the wind and the sun can not run out.

Many other countries around the world are already reaping the benefits of bold, visionary energy policies to mitigate climate change and to meet energy demand. Germany is the world’s leading wind energy power, with a forecast of 25% of its energy generated by wind alone by 2020. China is the world’s fastest growing wind power, with a realistic forecast of 15% of the nations energy coming form renewable sources by 2015. What did Germany, China and other nations do to enable such growth in renewable energy? Governments of both countries understood the threat of climate change and its causes, along with the challenge of ensuring energy security, and took the required policy steps to incentivise investment in renewable energy.

Thailand currently relies heavily on energy imports, and is in danger of taking the panic measure of committing us to a very unsustainable future powered by dirty and dangerous energy. Thailand has good wind energy resources, which, with the right incentives, could quickly be harvested on a small scale, to the benefit of local communities, and on an industrial scale, to the benefit of the whole nation.

We urgently need the Government to lead us down the right road for a sustainable energy future. We need them to divert funding from new build coal and nuclear energy towards clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency; to adopt legislation to provide investors in renewable energy with stable, predictable returns; to guarantee priority access to the grid for renewable generators and, finally, to adopt strict efficiency standards and demand side management programmes. Renewable energies are competitive, if and only if governments phase-out subsidies for fossil and nuclear fuels and introduce the `polluter- pays principle`. Historically, fossil fuel and nuclear power have enjoyed annual subsidies of around US$250 billion. We should shift these investments to energy sources that will help us stop the dangers posed by climate change.

Renewable energy, especially wind, can and will have to play a leading role in the world’s energy future. There is no technical but only a political barrier to make this shift. It is up to our government to seize the opportunity to continue sustainable development, reduce dependence from foreign sources, increase employment, create a stable society and make a significant contribution to the global fight against climate change.