Getting from 2.5(PM) to Zero: Why a “Roadshow” and what happened at the Townhall — everything you need to know
What does it mean to have a right to breathe clean air? In Thailand, unchecked air pollution endangers the health and safety of millions, the consequences of which are a drain on the economy and social services. Regulatory inaction and a lack of data and understanding of the scale and impacts of the crisis have led to a situation where many do not know that the air they breathe is literally toxic.
The Thailand Clean Air Network (Thai CAN) has gathered a coalition of academics, medical professionals, legal specialists, industry experts, and community members on a multi-year campaign to build widespread understanding and awareness of the truth behind the causes of — and potential solutions to — Thailand’s air quality crisis. The goal of this campaign is to support a systems-approach to development and adoption of a Clean Air Act for Thailand that secures the right to clean air for all Thailand’s residents.
One of the latest major steps in this campaign was the submission of the Draft Act on Regulating the Integrated Management of Clean Air for Health to the parliament for administrative approval on August 3, 2020. The submission was positively received by Mr. Chuan Leekpai, Chairman of the Parliament, and will be reviewed for administrative completeness before initial approval. Following the initial approval, Thai CAN and their partners, including Circular Design Lab, can begin the process of public engagement and signatory solicitation before putting the draft before parliamentary deliberation.
The submission of the Draft Act came following the release of Clean Air Blue Paper, a body of research developed by Thai CAN that details the drivers of particulate pollution nationwide as well as the impacts on the Thai economy and health and safety of the population. The Thailand CAN is following the European Union’s legislative process model to push for legislative change in Thailand, with development of three main concept papers: a White Paper providing high level information, a Blue Paper with a deep dive into the problem, and a (forthcoming) Green Paper detailing legislative options and solutions. This process is intended to ensure not only robust preparation of draft legislation but also a comprehensive public engagement process that will provide residents of Thailand a good understanding of the issues.
To officially release the Blue Paper and give an overview of the contents and campaign, Thai CAN and the Circular Design Lab hosted a Townhall Anniversary event on August 5. Featuring a panel of experts including several lead authors of the Blue Paper, the session was co-moderated by Ms. Weenarin Lulitanonda, co-founder of Thai CAN, and Dr. Kanawat Chantarawan, Ophthalmologist and Democrat Party Member. The discussion dove deep into the systems nature of the air pollution challenge and how persistent structural inequality, economic incentives, and lack of comprehensive and accessible information mean that Thailand’s poor and most vulnerable suffer the most from exposure while industries are still able to pollute with few-to-no limits.
Mr. Kaveh Zahedi — Deputy Executive Secretary, UN ESCAP, and Chair of the UN Interagency Air Pollution Task Force for Asia-Pacific — started off the session by underlining the urgency of action, highlighting the fact that Thailand is not alone and that the entire region is exposed to air pollution at unhealthy levels. Despite knowing the risks and understanding the solutions, action is still lagging.
“The urgency for action is why the work of Thai CAN is so important. We need to build momentum to take actions immediately. Thai CAN is very much showing the way here and can be an example for similar initiatives in other countries in the region.” — Kaveh Zahedi
Beginning the panel discussion, Dr. Wirun Limsawart, Head of the Society and Health Institute at the Thailand Ministry of Public Health, discussed the health implications and underscored the inequality at the heart of air pollution issues in Thailand: “Children growing up on two sides of a street and breathing the same air are impacted by air pollution differently because of their families’ differing income levels. This is inherently an inequality problem that requires a systemic, multi-layered solution.”
“Solving air pollution problems require multi-layered actions, from individual to family to community and society levels. Thai CAN came together partly because we believed that solving the problems at the society level requires people with different experience and expertise to work together. The work will lead to better understanding, and the understanding will turn fear into wisdom which then begets hope and faith that the problems are solvable.” — Dr.Wirun Limsawart
Dr. Witsanu Attawanich from the Faculty of Economics at Kasetsart University, an editor of the Blue Paper, described the intricacies of measuring the costs of air pollution and the need to consider economic impacts both at the individual level and the societal level. Factories saving costs through a polluting process, for example, may reduce their own costs and reduce prices for their goods, but the public health impact and the loss of productivity through sickness of individuals incur significant costs to society. To attempt to capture economic impacts of air pollution, the Blue Paper looks across many different sectors — from manufacturing and agriculture to hospitality and tourism and even marathon and public event organization. Dr. Witsanu urged the audience to remember that — at the individual level — the right to breathe clean air should be one of the basic rights granted to all residents at no cost.
“Why do we need to use our personal money to buy masks and air purifiers when clean air should be our basic rights? If we have clean air, the money used for protecting ourselves can instead be used for other more productive things.” — Dr. Witsanu Attawanich
The Director of the Ecological Alert & Recovery — Thailand (EARTH) Foundation, Ms. Penchom Saetang, further illustrated the costs to society by showing the stark effects of dioxin and other toxic pollutants, especially those released through industrial emissions. The EARTH Foundation began their work in 1998 to measure the true nature of industrial pollutants in areas southeast and west of Bangkok (Map Ta Phut, Rayong; and Samut Sakon). With help from partner research centers and laboratories in the United States, more than 50 types of toxic ingredients — many of which are birth defect or cancer-inducing — were found in the air samples. This exposure to the realities of industrial pollutants led to successful establishment of industrial emission control standards in Thailand, but unfortunately there are still very high levels of dioxin and other pollutants found in the industrial areas of Thailand and there is still much work to be done.
“We have even found high levels of dioxin in eggs collected from hens that have been scavenging for food around the industrial areas, showing that air pollution has entered our food system. This is a warning sign that air pollution in our country can take lives, and we are particularly worried about the future for our children” — Ms.Penchom Saetang
To sustainably solve the air pollution issue in Thailand, a structural change at the policy and legislative level is needed. To give a look inside Thai CAN’s process to push for such change, Dr. Kanongnij Sribuaiam, professor and environmental law expert at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, shared with the audience Thai CAN’s roadmap to push for an adoption of an effective clean air legislation for the country. With the submission of the Draft Act on Regulating the Integrated Management of Clean Air for Health as mentioned above, the work toward sustainable structural change is well underway. Dr.Kanongnij highlighted, however, that while legislation is important — especially for society-level change — having the law alone will not result in clean air overnight. Effective enforcement, comprehensive understanding among the public, and concrete linkages to day-to-day life are also required. “That is why it’s important that Thai CAN is an interdisciplinary team. It enables cross-pollination between many fields ensures that our work spans both legislative drive and public engagement.”
Equipped with the scientific and economic knowledge of air pollution, and with the roadmap to push for a legislation underway, the next step for Thai CAN and their partners is to ensure effective public engagement. Dr. Saranyu Mansup of King Prajadhipok Institute shared her view on driving a social movement toward the right to clean air, which has to begin with effective education and sharing of knowledge to the public.
“The sharing of knowledge and information will create dialogues in the communities. The dialogues will lead toward pockets of social movements which can come together to drive structural changes in the society. The process will take time though, and will take patience and a lot of willpower from all alliances involved. We have a long road ahead of us and we need all the support we can get.” — Dr. Saranyu Mansup
To further awareness and understanding of the Clean Air Blue Paper and the right to clean air movement, Thai CAN and the Circular Design Lab are launching a “Getting from PM2.5 to Zero” Digital Roadshow and workshop series between August — December 2020.
The Digital Roadshow is organized into two tracks: The INHALE (learn) webinar series will dive deep into the technical details of the Clean Air Blue Paper, featuring experts and paper co-authors from a variety of sectors who have been working closest to the issue. The corresponding EXHALE (take action) series will be a series of creative and interactive events for participants to learn about volunteers, NGOs, artists, and social enterprises also working on the issue in Thailand and beyond as well as workshops to learn about ways to take action and claim the #right2cleanair.
The Thailand Clean Air Network is a group of active citizen volunteers from a diverse multi-disciplinary background who were alarmed by the increasingly polluted air that we breathe. The group’s ethos is to be the depository of accurate and relevant information that would ignite an awakened society to seek much needed policy-level change. In collaboration with the Circular Design Lab’s air pollution team, the ‘Right to Clean Air Digital Roadshow’ from August — December is offered as a holistic way to lay the groundwork for the path ahead needed to protect our collective right to breathe clean air.