Farmers growing rice in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam have in recent years been facing harsher weather conditions and scarcer water supplies reportedly linked to climate change as well. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad (File photo, 2015)

Code red for SE ASIA and Thailand and efforts of climate change mitigation & adaptation

At COP26 late last year, the international community became seriously vocal about the new ambitious goals to cut Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) to zero in a hope to achieve a sustainable and resilient society against harsh impacts caused by pandemics like Covid-19. Along with the mitigation efforts, adaptation to help boost social resilience also gained an extensive attraction. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to launch its fresh assessment on adaptation efforts worldwide early next week, Dr. Seree Supratid, Director of Rangsit University’s Climate Change and Disaster Center, also a co-author of the IPCC’s assessment reports on adaptation, has comprehensively assessed the situations on the ground in the region and Thailand

Following the IPCC (2021) report is a “code red for humanity.” The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable; greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting the lives of billions of people at immediate risk.

Extreme weather and climate disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible. The internationally agreed threshold of 1.5C is perilously close. The earth is at imminent risk of hitting 1.5C in the near term (we are already at 1.2C and rising). The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold is by urgently stepping up several efforts and pursuing the most ambitious path of deep carbon cuts and adaptation measures following the Glasgow Climate Pact from COP26.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have to be cut by 45-50% by 2030 and every country has to fulfil its target of net-zero emission in 2050, otherwise, the mean temperature will rise to 2.7C.

The world’s future projected at COP26.

Code red for humanitarian and climate change in Southeast Asia & Thailand

Southeast Asia (SEA) is identified as a key region in vulnerability to climate extremes as a result of its high population density, exposure to tropical cyclones, heightened rainfall variability due to El Nino-Southern Oscillation and low-lying areas.

The majority of SEA is influenced by the Asian-Australian monsoon and several regions within it are affected by extreme weather events, particularly tropical cyclones, droughts, and floods. To better understand past, present and future climate change, the Working Group on Coupled Modelling under the framework of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) established the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3, CMIP5, and now CMIP6).

This serves as a fundamental basis for international climate research with a remarkable technical and scientific coordination effort among climate modelling centres. Projections of potential changes in climate extremes are now being investigated by global climate models in many regions. The projected changes in mean and extreme precipitation over several parts of SEA show substantial increases in the 21st century. A marked amplification in extreme precipitation over the Indochina Peninsula and the Maritime Continent were found under 1.5C and 2C global warming levels.

The spatial distribution of the projected changes in mean temperature and precipitation under two different SSPs are shown in below (The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), five of them, introduced in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report launched last year to help project socioeconomic global changes up to 2100 based on GHG emissions, from very low to very high). The annual mean temperature under all scenarios increases as time progresses with little local difference in its pattern. However, it shows a significant increase over northern SEA with the greatest increase in east Papua.

For the near-future period, the annual mean temperature averaged over SEA is projected to increase by 0.34C and 0.40C under SSP2-4.5 (moderate GHG emissions) and SSP5-8.5 (very high emissions), respectively. For the mid-future period, the annual mean temperature is projected to increase by 1.20C and 1.68C. And in the case of the distant future period, the annual mean temperature over SEA is projected to increase by 1.82C and 3.48C respectively under the same two scenarios.

I Spatial distribution of future changes in mean temperature and precipitation. Credit: Dr. Seree Supharatid.

In contrast to the mean temperature, the annual mean precipitation changes show significant regional differences. Overall, the projected annual mean precipitation shows small reductions (less than 10%) over northern SEA and Indonesia (Java) for the near-future period and then increases towards the distant-future periods.

For the near-future period, the projected mean precipitation over SEA shows an increase of 3.04% and 3.64% under SSP2-4.5 and SSP5-8.5, respectively as compared to the present climate. For the mid-future period, it shows an increase of 7.10% and 8.51% respectively. For the distant-future period, the mean precipitation is projected to increase by 9.62% and 15.19% under the same two scenarios, respectively.

Under the high-emission SSP5-8.5 scenario, most areas in SEA exhibit a significant and robust increase in mean precipitation (except in Java) relative to the present climate. Greater increases in precipitation are projected over northern and central Vietnam, northern Thailand, northern Myanmar, northern Laos, Cambodia, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and east Papua.

The great Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia has been facing exceptionally low flows of water from the Mekong in recent years. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad (File photo, 2015)

Thailand’s “code red”

For Thailand, it will face the code red with extreme climate from both climate change and climate variability along the timeline to the 21st century. A temperature rise of 5-6C, more heavy precipitation (30%), more frequency and magnitude of flood and drought (20-30%), and extreme sea-level rise of 1.7 metres may occur in the 21st century.

However, natural resources make up the backbone of its economy. Agriculture is the main activity, driving the manufacturing sector and spin-offs in the service industry, such as food processing and tourism. Climate change will have a great impact on the country. Thus, it is important that plans for climate change adaptation be given urgent attention.

Thailand has a long coastline totalling about 2,615km. The country’s capital and major port are located along the coastline, making it vulnerable to climate change. A study by OECD in 2007 ranking the cities of the world revealed that by the 2070s more than 90 per cent of the significant assets exposed in major port cities will be located in eight countries. Thailand had been ranked in the top-tenth to experience the worst projected impacts. The country was also expected to experience the worst coastal flooding, ranked No. 5 among 11 countries.

  • National arrangements and institutions

Thailand ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 1994 and the Kyoto Protocol in August 2002. Thailand developed the Initial National Communication to the UNFCCC from 1997 to 2000, funded by the Global Environment Facility.

The national focal point for climate change in the country is the Office of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (Monre). The ministry is the anchor for climate change in Thailand, receiving support from various departments, particularly ONEP.

The highest policymaking on climate change is the National Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the Prime Minister and comprising three sub-committees on technical aspects, negotiation and public relations. Monre is the secretariat for all the committees. The secretariat coordinates all activities in collaboration with other government agencies as well as universities, research institutes, non-governmental and private entities.

In 2008, the Cabinet of Thailand approved the Strategic Plan on Climate Change (TSPCC 2008–2012). The plan facilitated the implementation of climate change actions in the country. The plan comprised six strategies to guide national and local agencies, where four were focused on climate change adaptation. These included the capacity building to adapt and reduce vulnerability; research and development on climate impacts, adaptation and mitigation; raising awareness and public engagement; and institutional capacity building, including training of staff and establishing frameworks for coordination and integration.

Thailand’s actions on climate change are also sustained by policies and plans prepared by ONEP. A 10-year Master Plan (2010–2019) on climate change was put into place to meet the challenges effectively; this involved long-term development plans for all sectors: public and private, academic institutions, and common citizens. However, there are still many challenges in the integration of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA). The DRR master plan is the responsibility of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, Ministry of Interior, while the CCA master plan is the responsibility of the ONEP, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Wind turbines in Nakhon Ratchasima province.
  • Mitigation efforts

Thailand contributes only 0.8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. In 2002, the emission rate per capita of the country was 3.25 metric tons. While this is lower than the global average of 3.97 tons per capita, the levels have doubled in 2002 compared to 1991.

This has served as an impetus for the government to take action. In April 2007, Bangkok hosted an IPCC Plenary Session and in the following year, the city convened the UN climate change talks. The following month, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration published the 2007 Action Plan on Global Warming Mitigation, calling for reductions in Bangkok’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below projected 2012 levels.

Thailand submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC in 2015. Thailand’s Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) pledged a contribution of 7-20% GHG emission reduction by 2020 below its business-as-usual level in the energy and transport sectors.

ONEP noted in the country’s third national communication to the UNFCCC in 2018 that the NAMA implementation showed promising mitigation outcomes to ensure that the country was on track to meet the 2020 target. In May 2017, the Cabinet approved the Nationally Determined Contribution Roadmap on Mitigation (2021–2030).

Aspects that are given priority in the Roadmap on Mitigation include renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are specified under the Power Development Plan, Alternative Energy Development Plan, and Energy Efficiency Plan. Ambitious actions are also specified in the transportation sector, promoting a shift from the road-to-rail for both freight and passenger haulage. The Environmentally Sustainable Transport System Plan will incorporate these elements by expanding mass rapid transit lines, constructing double-track railways and enhancing bus transfer routes in the Bangkok Metropolitan region, according to ONEP.

However, the proposed measures and actions are faced with major barriers of very high investment and operating costs. Therefore, international cooperation through the UNFCCC such as technology transfer, financial support, and capacity building is imperative to implement such actions.

Northeastern farmers grow rice in lowland floodplains, which are also increasingly facing unpredictable water conditions due to various factors combined. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
  • Adaptation efforts

Agriculture, tourism, and trade are the main economic sectors that will be affected by climate change in the country. A majority of Thailand’s population of 65 million are in rural, agricultural areas. Being one of the world’s largest exporters of rice, Thailand has been labelled “the rice bowl of Asia”. Some 49% of Thais are in the agricultural sector, which contributes 10% of GDP.

Thailand’s 3,200 km of coastline, meanwhile, is the backbone of the tourism and fisheries sectors; it contributes to the livelihood of 10% of the population and accounts for 6% of GDP. Around 15% of the country’s population live in the capital city, Bangkok, which is the economic, political and social centre_not only for Thailand, but also for the greater Mekong region, making it a global city.

The country’s economy, culture, and environment stand to suffer tremendously as a result of climate change. Climate change and its effects include higher surface temperatures, floods, droughts, severe storms, and sea-level rise. Thailand’s rice crops can be wiped out by just one degree of warming, and rice production is the backbone of its economy. It is predicted that in 20 years, Bangkok is likely to be submerged due to rising sea levels; a rise by just a few centimetres will severely affect coastal tourism, in addition.

In an effort to save the country’s economy from the effects of climate change, Thailand is working to put into place comprehensive adaptation plans. These include a slow shift to organic agriculture, a tsunami warning system along the Andaman Sea, the construction of a flood prevention wall around Bangkok, and an action plan to reduce GHG emissions from vehicles and energy use.

In Thailand, CO2 emission scenarios formed the basis of climate change impact and adaptation studies, ONEP noted in its second communication report to the UNFCCC in 2011. This model-based approach generally covers many decades with high uncertainties.

Conventional scenario planning is found to be weak in supporting climate change adaptation planning because of its static exploratory nature, lack of local level multi-sectoral inputs and relatively short time frames such as 20 years, which contribute to uncertainties, as cited by some recent research. These scientific and technical limitations have largely been ignored previously, partly due to rising occurrences of climate change-related natural disasters and the urgent and practical need to identify areas exposed to such risks. Climate variability and extreme events, such as severe droughts or floods covering a few years (5-10 years) are now being increasingly studied.

Since 2000, the Thailand Research Fund has supported much of the research work on the effects of climate change. Climate change impact, vulnerability, and adaptation have been prioritised, thanks to Thailand’s National Strategy on Climate Change, 2008–2012.

Considerable efforts have been made over the past decade to expand technical knowledge and integrate the results into the process of sustainable national development. It should also be noted that very few bilateral and multilateral cooperative variability and adaptation projects, through the UNFCCC, have been promoted over the same period.

The ultimate goal of vulnerability and adaptation efforts is to integrate climate change adaptation needs into national development policies and planning. The potential impacts of climate change affect different sectors in the country. Furthermore, the adaptive capacities of communities in different geographic settings vary. The impact of climate change and vulnerability to climate change are locality-specific, making adaptation responses context-specific. Agriculture, water resources, and health sectors were cited by ONEP in its 2018 third communication report as being more vulnerable to climate change impacts, while coastal ecological resources were vulnerable to a rise in sea level.

Thailand endured major flooding in 2011. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
  • Vulnerable sectors and regions

Concepts and terminology introduced in the IPCC Third Assessment Report of 2001 have served to guide adaptation in Thailand. The method of unequal weights was used to construct the vulnerability index for Thailand.

A set of indicators were selected for each of the three components of vulnerability. The data was arranged in the form of a matrix and normalised using functional relationships. Vulnerability indices were computed using regional and provincial level data. Indicators were selected based on the availability of data, previous research and their underlying reasons for vulnerability.

Data in 2006 was used as the baseline data to construct the vulnerability index. Changes in climatic variables in 2006 were compared to the average of 30 years. It was found that, at the regional scale, the Northeast was the most vulnerable to climate change. It was characterised as a very highly vulnerable region. Other regions like the North, East, and South were less vulnerable regions.

Vulnerability to climate change in Thailand (2011).

Agriculture: Agriculture is an important sector in Thailand’s economic and social development; it produces rice, sugarcane, cassava, rubber, and maize, and provides raw materials for many attendant industries. It was the source of food security and employment during the 2000 and 2007 economic crises. However, the ratio of agriculture to GDP is dropping. Notwithstanding, a majority of the population is still engaged in this sector.

Floods and droughts are dominant hazards for the agriculture sector in Thailand. However, the effects of climate change on this sector could vary. For example, in the Songkhram River Basin, combined top-down and bottom-up approaches revealed that the future maximum and minimum temperatures under the extreme GHG emission scenario were expected to increase by 2.8C and 3.2C respectively with a shift in rainfall patterns, the study in 2019 on the evaluation of climate change impacts and adaptation strategies on rainfed rice production in the Songkhram River Basin noted.

With the help of such information, strategies were identified to produce more rice in the Basin. However, different models were used in selected areas to study the potential impact on rice and maize yields, and these showed substantial variations in production levels. Such variations are due to the high level of uncertainties associated with the models. This problem of unreliable models has yet to be resolved.

The effects of climate change have been projected in one study, which shows that the impact on agricultural crops could be moderate, even minimal. However, climate change could cause yields of crops to fluctuate substantially. During the rainy season, northern regions could experience more problems in production; the effects during the hot season are projected to be the same across the country. However, there is a level of uncertainty as only one model was used.

Another issue to note is that there were not enough socioeconomic scenarios developed in previous studies. This was looked into in the latest study, using the country’s development vision for the next two decades. In these scenarios, food production (World Kitchen), renewable energy, integration and eco-balanced development are the focus of possible scenarios. Each scenario is set to have different land uses for agriculture and other activities.

Under the natural resource constraints, rice production is projected that it should see increase by 23%. Sugarcane and cassava areas, as cited by one available study in 2002 are expected to double with emphasis on renewable energy. The conservation of forests is expected to increase carbon sequestration while soil and water conservation is projected to improve in agriculture systems, as part of the integration policy.

Water resources: Climate change is expected to have implications on river water flow and storage capacity, which in turn affects water resources. The extent of its influence is subject to the amount and intensity of rainfall as well as evaporation rates.

An investigation of the surface water flow into the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams has been conducted using climate scenarios from the Conformal Cubic Atmospheric model and the Variable Infiltration Capacity hydrological model in a 2010 study on Thai climate change and its impacts towards water sector. The findings projected that water flows into the Bhumibhol dam could be reduced by the middle of the century. The Sirikit dam would not be similarly affected. However, this could change by the end of the century when the water flows into the two dams was projected to increase considerably.

Surface water flow is known to increase with higher rainfall; high concentrations of CO2 produce more rainfall. Results from studies in the Mekong River in the mid-2000s using a combination of climate models have shown this. Water flow was expected to reduce during the dry season. However, increased water was expected to result in flash floods in the eastern region, according to some models cited (START 2006).

Health: The Initial National Communication in 2000 documented the first study on the impacts of climate change on health. A technical relationship between temperature and the growth rate of mosquitoes showed that global warming would result in the spread of malaria within the first half of the century. However, there has been no follow-up study over the past 10 years.

A more recent study on risks of malaria and dengue and climate factors in various provinces failed to establish a clear relationship; more studies are needed. The first National Strategic Plan on Environmental Health (2008–2011) is a result of cooperation between key environmental as well as public health agencies. Approved by the Cabinet on December 8, 2009, the plan comprised six strategies, including climate change measures and approaches.

The strategy emphasised the enhancement of an effective warning system to control and prevent airborne diseases caused by climate change from turning into an epidemic. The Charter of Environment and Health, signed by 14 Ministers of Health from Southeast and East Asia in 2007, provided guidance for this initiative. The charter is expected to facilitate regional collaboration, specifically for enhancing adaptive capacity in the health sector as well as research and development.

Forest fires become more frequent both by man-made incidents and drier weather in Thailand.

Forest and wildlife: Since the last study in the Initial National Communication to the UNFCCC in 2000, no other studies on the impacts of climate change on forests have been carried out.

The type and structure of the forest and its ecosystem, as well as the biological diversity of fauna and flora which is vital to the development of agricultural genetic resources, are the main areas of concern; these were addressed in the National Strategic Plan on Climate Change (2008–2012).

Marine and coastal resources: With a coastline of more than 2,600km, the country has an ecosystem that is vital to the socio-economic growth of the southern and eastern regions. Unfortunately, there have not been many studies done on the potential effects of global warming on the sea level.

Dynamic Interactive Vulnerability Assessment was used in a small study along the coast of Krabi and it showed that in 25-30 years, the sea level was likely to rise by 11–22cm. It would also affect about 10-35 metres of the coastline, which would be inundated, as cited by START and WWF in 2008. However, the sea level rise in the Gulf of Thailand over the past 56 years showed a decline by 3 cm per century; this reverse trend could be due to geological change, according to another study in 2006.

Aspects of vulnerability to sea-level rise, physical changes and biological conditions have to be incorporated into socio-economic scenarios to model future impacts.

Vulnerable regions: Climate change is challenging as it affects people’s livelihoods severely. Dealing with these changes is not easy when scientific information and expertise on this subject nationally is often quite limited.

Currently, it is mostly derived from global level knowledge, rather than from the specific country. Most of the Asian countries depend on predictions from experts in meteorology or geography. The data available on the potential trends is often generic. The mean annual temperature with a longer summer and more daytime temperatures rising above 33C have been forecast. There will be fewer cold days, however, rainfall will be more intense. Water shortage and increase in drought days and flood frequency in some river basins are expected.

Changes in rice productivity are also expected. There may be more wet season crops in some areas and less in others. Wetlands will be badly affected by a decrease in water. Severe coastal erosion and changes in the accretion patterns will ravage the coastal zones. Already 23 coastal provinces in Thailand have lost 599 km2 or 21% of 2,667km. The Bangpakong and Maeklong coastal ecosystems are the most at risk (more than 25m per year). Depending on the setting, the probability of landslide events is expected to increase sharply in high and medium-altitude regions due to an increase in extreme rainfall, a study in 2018 on the distributed probability of slope failure in Thailand under climate change noted.

In Thailand, adaptation activities tend to emphasise the prevention of natural disasters; not the management of climate change. International organisations such as the MRC, UNDP, and the ADB have provided technical and financial support in the area of climate change. A study is currently underway on “Climate Change Impact Adaptation and Mitigation in Asian Coastal Mega Cities”, which includes Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The study is being funded by the ADB, World Bank and other parties. The investigation on climate change issues in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City is also being carried out.

COP26 President received morale support from the floor for the hard decision to adopt the revised decision text of Glasgow Climate Pact. Credit: UNFCCC