Challenges in tackling PM2.5 crisis

Chiang Mai has repeatedly been named the world’s most air-polluted city this year. Not exactly a title to be envious about.

The city was hit hard by PM2.5 ultra-fine dust on March 31., an air quality reporting website, reported Chiang Mai had an air quality index of 320 with an ultra-fine PM2.5 dust level of 269.2 microgrammes per cubic metre (μg/m3), far beyond the World Health Organization (WHO)’s “safe” limit of 25 μg/m3.

Chiang Mai, a major tourism hub, has been worrying about PM2.5 since 2016. Three years later, the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared the toxic dust a national agenda — but the problem hasn’t gone away.

According to the World Bank, PM2.5 dust caused damages of 210 billion baht in 1990. This jumped to 870 billion baht in 2013. Meanwhile, a 2019 study by one economist, Assoc Prof Witsanu Attavanich at Kasetsart University, found the financial burden from PM2.5 on households in Bangkok and its satellite provinces amounted to 436 billion baht a year.

The impact on human health is clearly the most serious concern. The State of Global Air report blamed toxic haze for 32,200 deaths in 2019. Greenpeace (Thailand) recently linked the ultra-fine dust to 29,000 premature deaths in 36 provinces — making it a much bigger threat than the death toll from traffic accidents, narcotics and homicides.

PM2.5 particles, with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (more than 100 times thinner than a human hair), are at their worst in Thailand from January to March. This is because low air pressure from China causes stagnant air that leaves the upper part of Thailand blanketed in a sheet of pollutants from agricultural burning and incomplete fossil fuel combustion.

Fumes from car exhausts, especially diesel engines, and traffic congestion are the major causes of air pollution in Bangkok and other big cities. As of January, there were 3.2 million diesel engine pick-up trucks in Bangkok, or 27.5% of the 11.6 million registered vehicles in the capital.

Moreover, the country has stuck with the Euro 4 fuel emission standard that permits higher particulate matter of 10 microns per diameter (PM10), at a maximum of 0.025g/km, instead of moving to use more cleaner Euro 5-6 standards that cap particulate matter at 0.005g/km. Other causes of toxic dust are the fossil fuels used in power plants, as well as waste burning and household activities.

Air pollution in rural areas is associated with the open burning of major cash crops such as sugar cane and maize. Due to farm labour shortages and expensive machinery, burning is still seen as the cheapest method. The situation gets worse with the spread of wildfires, intensified by the dryness during this season.

It is a deep-seated structural problem that prevents the government from resolving the haze issue. To begin with, the panel tasked to oversee the PM2.5 crisis operates as an ad hoc body without any consistency.

Local agencies lack sufficient budget because the bureaucratic allocation causes bottlenecks. Most of the budget allocated to tackling haze is concentrated within departments in the central administration.

To give a clear picture, it could be said that of a four-baht request, the Budget Bureau would only hand over one baht to be shared among a cluster of agencies. Moreover, red tape hinders cross-agency spending. Instead of cooperating and streamlining their tasks, each agency must bargain with the bureau to get its slice.

This greatly affects how the money can cascade down into localities. What happens is the provincial budget keeps dropping — from 48.6 billion baht in 2018 to 19.6 billion baht in 2020 — compared to the cluster budget, which was halved from 16.3 billion baht in 2018 to 8.4 billion baht in 2020. The budget structure for both the provinces and cluster for 2024 is the same as that in 2020.

The government has acknowledged the bottleneck issue. In 2018, it formed a national committee to solve the problem. This is overseen by the PM, with the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) acting as its secretary. Under this solution, the state budget for the region is divided into two parts: 70% for the provinces themselves and the rest for provincial clusters.

In principle, there is a separate money pool — the so-called “integration budget” — for regional agencies to turn to, in addition to respective departments. While department chiefs or ministers are able to bargain hard with the Budget Bureau, this budget has no key agencies that are directly responsible for it, so there is no bargaining to be had.

Local agencies don’t get a budget for PM2.5. Provincial governors can make proposals, but when it comes to implementing them, they face stiff rules barring them from siphoning the budget from other departments.

Impractical auditing also obstructs budget spending. Under a tight financial auditing system, it takes 3-6 months for the state to compensate victims of disasters.

PM2.5 is an unusual challenge because of the transboundary effect — some of it comes from open burning on maize plantations in Myanmar or sugarcane fields in Cambodia. Local experts guess that 60-65% of the haze in Chiang Mai comes from other provinces and neighbouring nations.

The government must solve these problems at their core by tackling the inadequate state regulations, inert bureaucracy and silo culture. The government cannot stick with its same old centrality; different departments must be given authority to have “departmentocracy”.

The government must look at haze as a chronic health and environmental threat, instead of “seasonal air pollution” that will be dissipated over time when the rain comes. The country’s policy on PM2.5 is inconsistent and piecemeal because the problem is presented as being seasonal.

To deal with it in a more effective and focused manner, Thailand needs better quality data on airshed areas. The government must fund research to learn more about the volume and movement of this kind of air pollution.

Armed with this information, provinces that fall under the same airshed could work together, and ensure the appropriate budget allocation.

The prime minister would also be able to steer all departments to work in a proactive and cooperative manner, with appropriate goals and action plans based on the level of pollution in that airshed area. Cooperation should also be fostered with neighbouring countries and Thai businesses that promote monocrops like maize or sugarcane in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

For the farm and forest sector, the government should provide subsidies to farmers keen to turn to agricultural machinery, so they can stop burning waste on their farms. Studies and increased development should be promoted for alternative plants that may create new income-generating jobs. 

Those involved should look at successful examples in Nan, especially those supported by The Royal Initiative Discovery Foundation, known in Thai as the “Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation”, in promoting best practices and alternative plants that help turn nude forests in several degraded areas dominated by monoculture farming, into green forest. Such success can be achieved when local people have more choices in terms of earning an income, instead of having to burn farmland to plant cash crops.

In the long term, the government must strive to establish a mandatory carbon market so that local people will be incentivised to protect the forest and make money from carbon trading. The government must also have the courage to collect a carbon tax, based on the social cost from human activities, so that the national and local governments will have sufficient funds to mitigate the impact and provide remedies to affected parties and areas.

For the transport sector, the government must be more ambitious in aiming for a higher and tougher environmental benchmark, such as the Euro 6 air standard. It must launch a policy and plan to have all diesel engines phased out, replacing these with cleaner electric vehicles (EV) or hydrogen car engines. 

This means owners must be granted incentives and subsidies to make the transition to cleaner engines. As part of this process, the government must collect a diesel tax and hold those polluting industries accountable. This policy may sound harsh, but it will help combat both PM2.5 and greenhouse gases.

All that is needed is the political will to make this happen. Sadly, political parties have not shown this, or the courage to tackle PM2.5 at a fundamental level.

Article by Nipon Poapongsakorn, Kamphol Pantakua and Sutthipat Ratchakom 

Nipon Poapongsakorn, PhD, is a distinguished fellow; Kamphol Pantakua and Sutthipat Ratchakom are researchers at the Thailand Development and Research Institute. Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First Publish: Bangkok post on Wednesday, April 12, 2023 

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