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Commentary: Thailand must take action for cleaner air in Asean

05 Apr Commentary: Thailand must take action for cleaner air in Asean

By Simon Tay and Liyana Othman
For Bangkok Post

When complaints are made about the haze crisis and air pollution in Southeast Asia, most usually think about fires in Indonesia’s provinces, which have been a recurrent problem for over two decades. However, the situation this year has been different as Thailand has been at the centre of concerns.

Parts of northern Thailand are suffering from some of the worst air pollution on record, with calls being made to declare an emergency. In fact, Chiang Mai has taken the top spot for being the world’s most polluted city for a few days in March, beating cities like Delhi and Lahore. The cause of the choking haze can be traced to the annual dry season which lasts from February until April — when farmers in northern Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia and Myanmar — light fires to clear land for crop cultivation.

Earlier this year, it was Bangkok that found itself shrouded in smog, with many residents scrambling to buy face masks, while schools were shut to ensure the safety of children. Tourists were also advised to stay away from the Thai capital. In fact, Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank Research Center has estimated that the smog crisis could cost the country’s healthcare and tourism sectors up to 6.6 billion baht in losses.

To its credit, the Thai government responded by clamping down on polluting vehicles and closing down some factories after inspections. Attempts were also made towards cloud-seeding in order to try force rain in hopes of clearing the air. Unfortunately, beyond short-term responses like these, the risk of the problem returning and getting worse remains unless consistent forward-thinking measures are taken.

There are lessons to be learnt on how to clear the air in the North, particularly from Indonesia. The Jokowi government has focused on enforcing laws against using fire as a method of land-clearing. Special arrangements have been made in the most fire-prone areas, especially sensitive peatlands, with a new government agency at the ministerial level set up in 2016. On top of that, the agro-forestry sector — particularly companies involved in palm oil and pulp and paper — are also making efforts to ensure the sustainability and non-use of fire in their supply chain.

However, cross-border efforts are more difficult, given sensitivity in neighbourly ties. Despite this, cooperation has been ramped up between Indonesia and its neighbours who are also affected by the haze. Singapore, for example, has committed to holding companies, including those based in the country, responsible under its own laws to complement and reinforce efforts undertaken by Indonesia.

Encompassing these and other steps is a legally-binding Asean agreement to overcome haze in the region as well as a roadmap to achieve this vision by 2020.

The clock is ticking on this. With less than a year to go until 2020, there are concerns that the target of seeing blue skies will remain a dream. This worry is further exacerbated by the fact that some scientists have predicted that 2019 will be the hottest year ever recorded in human history due to a possible El Nino event.

As the current chair of Asean, Thailand should push for stronger action — especially since its theme for this tenure is sustainability.

As one of the world’s fastest growing economic regions, urgency must be taken by Asean as a whole to tackle air pollution from sources like increasing industrial activity and construction. The region is also home to densely packed and highly motorised urban cities. The Bangkok smog crisis earlier this year was a case in point.

On top of that, Asean’s growing appetite for coal in order to meet the energy needs of its growing population could further contribute to an environmental crisis in the future. A study by Harvard University and Greenpeace in 2016 showed that pollution from coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia led to around 20,000 premature deaths annually, and if all planned coal projects go through, the number will more than triple to 70,000.

Thailand can leverage its chairmanship to push for cleaner air — not only to prove that member states are serious about meeting commitments to the Paris climate change agreement but also to improve the lives of their citizens.

For instance, Asean countries could look at enacting tougher laws to police polluting industries and increasing vehicular emissions standards, like what Singapore has done with its carbon tax and adoption of high vehicle emission standards. More electric vehicles could be introduced, and public transport encouraged as the preferred mode of transportation for commuters. Asean is also a prime spot for renewable energy, which is a quicker and cheaper solution to meet rising consumer demand compared to dirtier alternatives like coal. Other recommendations include installing better air quality monitoring systems as the current lack of data makes it difficult for citizens to be informed of the health risks they face.

On our part, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs will take stock of the current progress in the agroforestry sector in meeting sustainability targets, and expand the discussion to how trade and finance can shape a sustainable future in Asean’s resource sector, at the 6th Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, which will take place next month.

It is imperative that Asean cleans up its air. The region, with its heavily populated low-lying coasts and long coastlines, is highly vulnerable to weather extremes and rising sea levels associated with global warming. And if and when disaster strikes, all that economic progress built at the expense of the environment cannot save it.

Simon Tay is an associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore, and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Liyana Othman is senior policy research analyst (sustainability) at the SIIA. This commentary was first published in the Bangkok Post on 5 April 2019.