EARTH Thailand

Thailand’s worsening PM2.5 problem is lost in the fog of politics

Thai PBS World 10 February  2023

Despite making Thailand’s haze crisis national agenda in 2019, the government has made little progress in meeting people’s need for clean air.

The slow response has allowed seasonal PM2.5 dust – the most dangerous form of haze pollution – to choke many parts of Thailand in recent years. Earlier this month, PM2.5 levels soared so dangerously high that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) pleaded with businesses in the capital to reactivate the “work-from-home” mode.

Thailand sets the safe limit of PM2.5 (dust particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less) at 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Red health-hazard flags are raised if PM2.5 levels go above 100 micrograms.

The Pollution Control Department reported that PM2.5 hit health-hazard levels in more than 70 areas of the country on February 2. The dangerously high smog concentrations continued into February 3 and 4.

The government is supposed to swing into action if PM2.5 rises above 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air for three consecutive days. If this happens, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha should call an urgent meeting with relevant agencies to introduce emergency remedial measures; provincial governors are expected to do the same in their areas.

“But the government has been very quiet this year,” said Sonthi Kotchawat, an independent expert on environmental health.

Is smog really on the national agenda?

The Prayut government has drawn up a Smog Management Plan for implementation between 2019 and 2024. However, the public has so far seen barely any tangible measures. What Thais have seen is the smog situation visibly worsening. Meanwhile, Prayut has also put the brakes on at least three draft laws related to clean air in recent years.

As a result, many people feel that the authorities have left them to deal with the dangerous haze situation on their own. With their health affected by the growing levels of PM2.5, well-off families have turned to air purifiers for relief. Those who venture outdoors under dust-filled skies also try to protect themselves with N95 face masks or other face coverings.

Calls for action

Emissions from vehicles are a key component of air pollution. However, Thailand has postponed its switch to Euro 5-standard fuel, which was initially scheduled for 2021, to January 1 next year.

Sonthi pointed out that the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), which is a state enterprise, has also been slow to introduce natural gas vehicle (NGV) buses. Of its 2,700 buses, so far only 489 are fueled by low-emission NGV.

“Today, most government vehicles also use diesel engines. It’s high time that they switched to natural gas,” the expert commented.

Assoc Prof Witsanu Attavanich, a climate change researcher and lecturer at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Economics, suggested that the government introduce tax measures to promote the use of environmentally friendly vehicles.

“In foreign countries, the older the vehicle, the bigger its vehicle tax. But it is the other way around here in Thailand,” he said.

If Thai authorities don’t change their approach, old vehicles with Euro 2-4 standard engines will remain in use and continue polluting the air, he added.

“Tax measures are practical. They have delivered clear results overseas.”

Witsanu said authorities should also consider introducing congestion fees to discourage the use of vehicles in already crowded and polluted areas such as city centers.

Big polluters

While vehicles may be the main source of PM2.5, several other culprits contribute to haze. Factories, for example, also pollute the air, but they tend to evade direct blame because Thailand does not have accurate information on the quantity of PM2.5 they emit.

“So at first glance, people may think factories are not a problem,” Witsanu said. “But look closer and you find the problem is definitely there. The government does little to inspect small factories, which exist in a large numbers and rank among serious polluters.”

Agriculture also plays a role in reducing Thailand’s air quality, because farmers of corn, sugarcane, and rice often burn their fields during or after the harvest.

Records show farmers illegally burn several dozen tons of sugarcane each year to strip the cane of leaves at harvest time. Nearly one-third of sugarcane sent to factories between December 1 last year and February 2 this year was burnt.

This is despite the fact that farmers lose 30 baht per ton of sugarcane found to have sustained burn marks, and the government has  set a goal of eradicating sugarcane-related agricultural fires this year.

“We need to stop these agricultural fires or else air pollution will become critical,” Witsanu warned.

Waiting for right laws

Six draft laws related to PM2.5 were drawn up between 2020 and 2022. However, three have already been scrapped by Prayut.

On July 9, 2020, Bhumjaithai MPs proposed the Clean Air for People Bill. Later in the same month, civil society proposed a bill on management for clean air. In 2021, Move Forward MPs came up with the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR). But Prayut refused to endorse them, so they were not put before Parliament.

The three other draft laws related to PM2.5 are still pending review by the government. They are the Pheu Thai Party’s Clean Air for Basic Human Rights Bill, the Palang Pracharath Party’s Clean Air Bill, and the Thailand Clean Air Network’s Clean Air Management for Integrated Healthcare Bill.

“We are waiting with much anticipation to see whether our bill will be passed,” Danaiphat Bhogavanija of the network said.

Backed by 24,000 people, the bill seeks to make clean air a basic health right. If the government fails to provide clean air, it is failing to protect people’s health.

“In that case, it should be sued,” Danaiphat said.

Penchom Saetang, director of the Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand Foundation, supports Move Forward’s legislation to register polluters, believing it would give people knowledge of where PM2.5 emitters are located and enable authorities to properly assess the situation and prepare solutions.

Selling anti-pollution policies

As this year’s general election gets closer, political parties are talking about how they will ease pollution and improve the environment to give Thais a better quality of life.

Pheu Thai Party’s Noppadol Patama said his party would push its Clean Air Bill as soon as it was elected to government. The Move Forward Party, meanwhile, vowed to revive its bill to create a register of polluters.

The Democrat Party has told Bangkok voters that it will fight for a Clean Air Bill to protect their health if they support the party in large numbers.