Climate Change not at the Top of Thailand's National Agenda

Traffic in Bangkok. Photo: jegn. This picture in under a Creative Commons Licence.

August 24, 2009

Interview with Ms. Penchom Tang and Ms. Wanun Permpibul, EARTH (Ecological Alert and Recovery, Thailand), a member of the Climate Action Network South-East Asia (CANSEA) and the Thai Working Group for Climate Justice

Jana Mittag: A recently published study, the “Bangkok Assessment Report on Climate Change”, revealed that Bangkokians emit just as much carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases, as New Yorkers, and more than Londoners. How aware is the Thai public of this fact?

Ms. Penchom Tang and Ms. Wanun Permpibul:
Awareness among the Thai public on climate change is still quite low. There are some campaigns to raise awareness, particularly about using cloth bags to replace plastic bags. Cloth bags display slogans about climate protection and the cooling off of the earth. Some other products, too, are marketed as climate-friendly. Condominiums near sky train stations are promoted for their proximity to public transport facilities - which could lead to a decrease in individual transport. Yet, information aimed at the general pubic on how energy saving can stop climate change is still very limited. Debate mostly takes place at seminars and formal meetings.

Transportation and electricity generation contribute 90 % to greenhouse gas emissions in Bangkok, with the transport sector responsible for 38 % of CO2 emissions annually. What is the Thai government's response to that?

Climate change is not at the top of Thailand’s national agenda. Changes in policy that have contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions have not been made to prevent climate change but in order to economise. Renewable energies, particularly biofuels for the transportation sector, are being promoted to reduce the dependency on diesel and oil imports. Renewable energies are being promoted to some extent but concrete measures to support their implementation are still missing. Emissions reduction is not part of development plans. The government’s main focus is on economic and energy security - which includes the promotion of carbon intensive industries such as steel and coal-fired power plants. The only policy that deals with the reduction of emissions is the promotion of nuclear power. The government argues that nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases. In this way, it uses the issue of climate change to support and justify its own policies while other impacts are not being considered.

What contribution has Thailand made to the global reduction of CO2 emissions? What potential for reduction is still untapped?

There have been a number of policies that contribute to emissions reduction, including the support of renewable sources of energy, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, the promotion of the use of biofuels, energy efficiency and saving. CDM projects alone, the majority of which are in the areas of biogas and biomass, amount to a certified emissions reduction (CER) of nearly three million tons of CO2 per year. Compared to the big potential of renewable resources such as solar, wind, and biomass this is negligible, though. There are a number of attempts by communities to start small decentralised renewables power plants. However, there is a lack of political will to make climate change part of an overall strategy of sustainable development.

The above-mentioned study points out infrastructure, water, health, and food production as the most affected sectors. Land subsidence and rising sea levels could leave Bangkok up to one metre below seawater level by 2025. Heat-related diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are on the rise. What other consequences are to be expected, especially in other parts of the country?

Different parts of the country will experience different impacts and risks. We need to look at them in a socio-economic context. Some communities depend on forest products and climate change may strongly impact their livelihood. In areas dependant on farming, unpredictable rainfall patterns will affect production. Hence changes in crop calendars and, perhaps, farming techniques will be necessary. Shifts in the frequency, severity, and duration of floods might have both positive and negative effects on communities, for example more fish but at the same time fewer crops.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is currently supporting research efforts to develop an adaptation policy for communities in the north-east of Thailand (Nakron Panom). How do you assess these efforts?

This is an attempt to look at a side of climate change that currently receives little attention. Adaptation provides options for survival in a warming world. To decide on adequate measures, the socio-economic impacts of climate change as well as their interactions with current and future policies are being analysed. The study could receive some political attention, especially at the local level. However, it is only based on one particular case. Since adaptation is area- and sector-specific, more case studies are required in order to come up with results that are significant on the national level.

How aware is the local population of the possible consequences of climate change? Is it possible to involve them in the process of developing adaptation measures?

Local people have lots of experience with environmental problems, for example with floods. To them, floods are natural phenomena that they have lived with since they were born. Up to now measures to deal with floods are short-term and mostly responsive, not preventive. The current political structure means that rural populations can only appeal to local authorities – who, in turn, have to follow national policies. This makes it difficult to implement long-term strategies against climate change. External support for adaptation to climate change is therefore especially helpful.

Women in rural areas are usually more severely affected by climate change than men. Are women’s needs taken into consideration?

Gender is not really a big issue in Thailand. However, the above-mentioned study showed that responses from women regarding the impacts of climate change were more focussed and addressed possible long-term solutions – which was not the case with responses from men.

What position on mitigation and adaptation will the Thai government take at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009?

The Thai government's position will be mostly the same as that of the G77 and China. Thailand is in favour of emissions reductions by the developed countries. Once progress has been made by the developed countries, Thailand will be open to a debate about contributions to be made by developing countries. As a big exporter of rice, Thailand is unwilling to discuss emissions from agriculture.

Is ASEAN active in setting mitigation targets?

No, ASEAN does not have a target. As there are huge social and economic differences between its members, it would be very difficult for ASEAN to postulate one target. The recent ASEAN Singapore Declaration on Energy and Climate Change is in support of large CO2 reductions by the developed countries and rejects binding commitments for developing countries. The development of clean coal, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage is also promoted within ASEAN. Generally, ASEAN's main focus is still on economic development.

What are the most important steps for Thai climate activists on the road to Copenhagen?

Right now the Thai Working Group for Climate Justice – a group of NGOs and local environmental initiatives – is preparing a joint statement. The aim is to formulate a participatory approach backed by different groups. We plan to lobby the Thai delegates to Copenhagen, both prior to and during the negotiations. On top of that we will try to push ASEAN to take a more active stance towards the Copenhagen talks.

How do you view climate justice and the concept of Greenhouse Development Rights?

Climate justice will have to involve both mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation efforts have to accurately reflect historical emissions, current and future capacity, as well as responsibility. In this respect, the Greenhouse Development Rights framework is very useful. However, regarding adaptation, issues of social justice need to be addressed more strongly. When you want to adapt to climate change it is wrong to just look at financial and technological issues. You will also have to take into account the “debts” that developed countries have accumulated due to their carbon-based development.

Interview by Jana Mittag, Director Office Southeast Asia of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Chiang Mai (Thailand).