A recycling plant of Win Process, which was burned down in a recent fire incident in Rayong province. Courtesy of Rayong PR Office

POLICY BRIEF: Environmental Policies and Challenges in the New Politics

Thailand is still facing critical environmental challenges that have been persistent in recent years. Environmental advocates and policymakers agreed that “good politics” plays a crucial role in addressing these challenges, but the country is still far from achieving “good politics” despite the latest election, which saw new voices emerge in the political landscape

Recent major environmental incidents, from illegal storage of carcinogenic cadmium waste, sporadic fires at recycling plants, to persistent PM2.5 haze, have all reminded people of the challenge in addressing critical environmental problems in this country. The issue has been discussed in society time and again and at the Dialogue Forum, Environmental Policies and Challenges in the New Politics, organised shortly after the election last year, when a new hope was raised with new voices emerging in the political landscape.

The environmental advocates and policymakers joining the forum nodded in agreement that “good politics” plays a crucial role in addressing these environmental challenges as they are not just phenomena but structural problems involved with centralisation of power and monopoly capitalism that need structural changes. These, they viewed, can be brought by good governance in politics.

As explained by Dr. Pakpoom Lohavaritanon, Director of the Law Faculty’s Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Law, Thammasat University, considering the environmental context politics is about the country’s administration and policy-making, and “good politics” is generally accepted that it is based on strong democracy, under which popular sovereignty belongs to people, and public participation, checks and balances, as well as right to expression are fundamental principles to be upheld. 

Amid environmental challenges, these democratic elements will enable the development of environmental laws or policies that are responsive to structural challenges, thus enabling structural changes and ultimately “good environment” for the people.

Hence, “good environment” deeply interconnects with “good politics”, but unfortunately, the country has hardly achieved “good politics” even after the new election and the concept of “good environment” has hardly been materialised here.

This can be particularly observed during the coup and post-coup period, during which the country’s democracy was weakened and democratic principles were undermined as a result. For instance, some coup orders, including Order 4/ 2559, waived city planning that helped regulate hazardous waste management and recycling. This becomes part of the reasons why recycling plants up until the present are poorly regulated and have caused problems here and there.

Even though the new 2017 Constitution was promulgated, it did not facilitate strong democratic elements and sound environmental policies and related laws as wished. First and foremost is the fact that the “good environment” principle or more tangibly known as the “right to a healthy environment” is missing from the 2017 Constitution, resulting in weak environmental policies and related laws that follow. 

Under the 2017 Constitution, Articles 43, 50, 51, 57 and 58 principally address community rights to utilise and jointly manage natural resources and the environment with the state, but they come with certain conditions attached to the related laws, posting obstacles to the development of new environmental policies and laws that respond to people’s rights and needs for “good environment”. Some of these Articles are not secured under the people’s rights section, but the State Duty, further weakening people’s rights to participate in managing natural resources and the environment as it’s the state who must take action first so people can follow or take further action accordingly.

Some related laws that follow even run counter good environmental practices, given the case of the amended 2018 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) announcement that waives the EIA process for some potentially harmful projects, including biomass production plants. The new Factory Act (B.E.2562), on the other hand, has also waived requirements for the renewal of permits for new factories, loosening the regulation over industrial operations and practices. Worse, several people-backed environmental laws are obstructed, including the draft PRTR Act or the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Act seen as a milestone for pollution management in the country.

During the election period, although some environmental problems or challenges were raised by political parties during their election campaigns, there was no guarantee that they would be taken up as the government’s priorities as this rather depended on their political conditions with coalition parties. Some certain issues had been raised by political parties because they were just critical and unavoidable such as PM2.5 haze.

As observed by the environmental advocates and policymakers at the forum, hardly any parties paid serious attention to environmental problems or challenges except for a few parties like Move Forward, which championed “good politics” at the heart of their campaigns.

Hence, whether the country can successfully deploy the concept of “good environment” alongside “good politics” to lead to structural resolutions and change or not really depends on the mindsets of the political sector, the state and the government included; whether they acknowledge and understand the value and importance of the environment and put it as a priority rather than political or economic benefits, the environmental advocates and policymakers concluded, nodding that there was still little hope as the politics after the election largely remained unchanged.

The environmental advocates and policymakers from Thammasat’s Law Faculty, TDRI, EARTH, EnLaw, and RECOFTC at the forum.

Policy recommendations

“Good politics” is crucial in helping address environmental challenges, but the environmental advocates and policymakers agreed that there’s a long way to go for Thailand to achieve it from the political sector following the results of the election. However, people do not have to wait for it to make things happen as 50,000 people can sign up for an amendment to the content of the Constitution.

In order to overcome these political challenges and address the environmental problems or challenges more efficiently, first and foremost, the principle of “good environment” or “right to a healthy environment” needs to be addressed in the Constitution, the environmental advocates and policymakers recommended. This will principally guide the action that follows, including reviews and enactments of related laws that do not respond to people’s rights and needs for “good environment”.

Besides, all fundamental democratic principles that guarantee such right of the people must be secured and upheld under the Constitution and related laws. Participation up to a decision-making level, for instance, can be addressed in related laws such as the Environmental Quality Act B.E. 2535.

Some international laws like the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right to information, participation in the decision-making process, and justice, can be an example for the country to apply to its environmental policies and related laws in the future.

The country’s priority should be given to “sustainable development” to ensure that any development will not undermine the environment, and the critical tool of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) must be applied to help guide the country’s development path.

Last but not least, development is not just about sustainability, but environmental justice, another prime principle that should be integrated when addressing environmental challenges and problems of the country, they stressed.

In the end, increased public awareness from the lessons learned and calls for change would pressure the political sector, which also needs to change itself and embrace more of “good politics”, the environmental advocates and policymakers at the forum remarked, remaining hopeful in the country’s politics, although it largely remains unchanged.

Also read: นโยบายสิ่งแวดล้อมในบริบทการเมืองใหม่ I Environmental Policies in the New Politics