Getting from (PM)2.5 to Zero: The Cost and the Impact of Air Pollution

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In this third digital session of the Right to Clean Air “Roadshow” we hear from the editor of the Clean Air Blue Paper, who has done an extensive write-up on this based on the field work undertaken particularly in northern Thailand. We also heard from a diverse line-up of speakers from the northeast, central and southern regions of Thailand. The guest speakers were asked to share their experiences about the impact of air pollution in their locality and about the measures that are taken to address the situation.

From August to December this year, the Roadshow will feature a series of events that bring together experts and active citizens from academia, law, business, civil society, the arts to engage and elevate the discussion around what it means to have the right to breathe clean air. The goal of this Roadshow is twofold: to raise awareness and educate, but also to inspire and catalyze actions to systematically address the challenge of air pollution. Below is an overview of what we covered on our third digital “stop”, an effort led 100% by volunteers.

Air pollution has usually been thought of as a big-city issue and would receive attention from the government only when Bangkok sky is covered with toxic haze late in the year. In reality, this problem spans far beyond the capital and affects nearly every corner of the country; causing massive economic losses and health damages to most people in the country.

That is the key topic that Circular Design Lab (CDL) and Thailand Clean Air Network (Thai CAN) brought for conversation during the 3rd installment of Digital Roadshow: From PM2.5 to Zero webinar on Wednesday 9 September. The webinar featured representatives from both academic institutions and the civil society, who shared their thoughts on the cost and impact of air pollution in various regions of the country.

You can watch this session (and others) on our YouTube channel — note, this specific session was conducted in English with simultaneous translation to Thai.

Here’s a summary of highlights-

Assoc.Prof.Dr. Witsanu Attavanich of the Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University, as Thai CAN’s environmental economist, started the discussion by describing the “economic losses due to air pollution” in Thailand. The losses had been estimated based on “social cost” borne by families impacted by air pollution in the country, with details provided in the Clean Air Blue Paper recently published by Thai CAN. Through extensive research and modeling, Dr. Witsanu estimated that the annual economic losses due to air pollution from PM 10 could be as high as 2 trillion baht or more than 12% of the country’s GDP. The number did not even include other damages such as loss of tourism and adverse impacts on outdoor events such as marathons yet.

Another facet of the impact from air pollution is its ability to reveal the “structural violence” in Thai society, where the gap between the rich and the poor can be appalling. This is evidenced in the differing abilities to protect their students with air purifiers between affluent private schools and their public school counterparts, or in the lack of knowledge and ability to protect themselves among impoverished communities in greater Bangkok metropolitan.

The structural violence in the Thai society may be most visible in the “no-burning” ban imposed on hill tribe communities in the north by the government without the provision of alternatives for their livelihood. The resulting conflicts have caused some communities to deliberately set fire to the forest as a symbolic demonstration of their anger.

“In solving the air pollution problem, we may need to revisit whether the measures imposed are creating unintended adverse effects. We need to better understand the local context in finding effective solutions for different areas.”- Assoc.Prof.Dr. Witsanu Attavanich

Mr. Supakorn Sirisoontorn, co-founder of Clean Air for Khon Kaen, took the conversation northeast and shared his experience pulling together a group of active citizens in Khon Kaen, a bustling city impacted by the rising levels of air pollution in recent years. The rising air pollution inspired many groups and people in the city, from individuals, media, and NGOs, to band together as Clean Air for Khon Kaen group looking to drive for sustainable solutions.

One of the recent accomplishments from Clean Air for Khon Kaen was the drive to get air pollution on the agenda of the Northeast Health Assembly, and the push for a more rounded city-planning policy where economic growth is balanced with environmental protection.

“The Smart City policy in Khon Kaen used to focus much more on economic growth and transportation infrastructure advancements, with barely any regards to environmental protection. Thus we needed to push for a more balanced conversation where the environment is also on the agenda.” - Mr. Suparkorn Sirisoontorn

Ajarn Supa Manoonsak, another co-founder of Clean Air for Khon Kaen, added to the conversation by sharing about her drive for awareness through the education for local development program. The program used to focus more on water quality and waste management, two long-standing issues in Khon Kaen, until the recent rise in air pollution. The transition from an invisible problem to a more tangible one has inspired certain policy action from the city municipality, including the inclusion of Low-Carbon City Strategy into the city plan.

However, Ajarn Supa remarked that the tangible drive for clean air will require more awareness from civil society, as there is now very little awareness about the importance of good air quality on people’s livelihoods. Education and public engagement is thus of utmost importance.

“Many schools in the city are not yet active about protecting their students [from air pollution]. Students — children — should have the right, upon birth, to live in a clean environment or an environment that does not damage their health. Educators and school administrators need to understand this right and have a sustainable policy to protect it.” - Ajarn Supa Manoonsak

Moving around to the center of the country; Mr. Vijo Varghese, co-founder of OURLAND THAILAND, shared his experience educating local communities and village leaders in Kanchanaburi about air quality and air pollution problems. There in the western forest, locals used to know nothing about the Air Quality Index and would judge the day’s air quality based on the visibility of mountains in their backyards.

Mr. Vijo’s effort brought to light the causes of air pollution in Kanchanaburi, which are (1) sugarcane burning during the harvesting season, (2) waste incineration, and (3) uncontrollable fire in the forests. Compounding the effects are ineffective measures — such as the “no-burning” ban — from the central government that cannot be realistically enforced on the ground.

The air pollution problem caused by sugarcane burning in the central plain highlights the policy-level flaws in the country. As the most concrete example, the policy to turn the country into a top sugar producer without regards to the readiness of supporting infrastructure and with aggressive drive for sugarcane plantations has cultivated massive sugarcane farmers in Thailand. These farmers, without access to cleaner alternatives, are left with no choice but to burn their crops for rapid harvesting to remain competitive. Their actions are then viewed from the outside as problematic, even though to change their behaviors requires a systematic policy-level change in the entire supply chain.

“To set the nation’s environmental direction based on GDP growth is nonsensical. We need to rethink our policy and re-look at our country’s infrastructure” - Vijo Varghese

Closing the conversation with a view from the south; Prof.Dr. Perapong Tekasakul, Director of Air Pollution & Health Effect Research Center, Prince of Songkla University, likened the air pollution problem in Thailand to a “national festival” that spans year-round; from winter pollution in the central plain to north and northeast biomass pollution in the harvesting months to trans-boundary haze during the monsoon season in the south. While the south has been known as a region with the cleanest air in the country, the region does get heavily affected by trans-boundary haze from swamp forest burning in Sumatra, Indonesia that sometimes travel thousands of kilometers in a matter of days.

Trans-boundary haze is not an easy problem to solve, even with the existence of regional mechanisms such as the ASEAN Haze Agreement. However, Dr. Perapong emphasized that the country can begin with solving internal problems first. The emphasis should be placed on creating awareness and desire to conserve local natural resources among local people, especially the youth, through collaboration between educational institutions and government entities. Equally important is the recognition that the root of the air pollution problem is about people’s livelihoods — the ability for people to live without damaging the environment.

“The root of the problem is about people’s livelihoods. Solve the livelihoods and you can solve air pollution. There needs to be a policy and infrastructure that enable people to live — to earn a living, to have good careers — without damaging the environment. If people can live well without needing biomass burning, then they won’t burn; but if they can’t, then air pollution will continue.”- Prof.Dr. Perapong Tekasakul

How You Can Get Involved

The exchange of air pollution problems and experience from around the country highlighted the necessity for policy-level and legislative solutions. This is precisely what Thai CAN has been doing with the preparation of a Draft Act on Regulating the Integrated Management of Clean Air for Health (read about the full process here). The Draft has since been administratively approved by the Thai Parliament and Thai CAN is now working to secure 10,000 Thai-citizen supporters to help put the Draft before the House of Representatives. Thai citizens interested in supporting the cause can do so here.

What’s Next? Join the next “Roadshow Stop” #4 on Wednesday, September 23 at 5pm ICT.

As for the upcoming event in the Digital Roadshow: From PM2.5 to Zero, join us on 23 September for a webinar on “The Creative Response to Air Pollution” to learn about the creative work by artists, educators, and community members passionate about air pollution issues.

Register to join the webinar here: https://bit.ly/AIRZEROREG2020

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