Credit: Thai Heath Promotion foundation

Thailand’s biofuel policies adressed among prime reasons for present toxic haze

Beneath the haze is the culmination of issues related to social equality, sustainability and corporate responsibility as well as the fragmented policy approaches that need effective and collaborative policy interventions

At the moment, Bangkok seems to be at ease, having a short break over the weekend from the severe haze which had returned for the third time this year. 

Since last December, Bangkok and other parts of the country especially in the central part and the North have been under threat caused by this air pollution to the point that it had led to school closures, changes to workers’ work schedules, critical health impacts, and losses to the national economy.

For Bangkok, the prime cause of this pollution is known to be incomplete vehicle engine combusion.

Combined with industrial emissions, and cold weather “inversion” patterns that have trapped the smog close to the ground, the air pollution is aggravated by the heat-trapping effect from Bangkok’s dense, concrete infrastructure that stimulate the formation of an inversion layer that obstructs ventilation.

But as the latest set of data shown, the other major culprit of the haze especially around Bangkok and the other parts mentioned is agricultural burning. 

Worasom Kundhikanjana, a Thai data scientist has linked spikes in harmful PM 2.5, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometer, in Bangkok to the number of agricultural fires in South East Asia. 

These particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and can easily enter our bodies, even making their way into our blood. The World Health Organization estimates 7 million deaths worldwide from exposure to fine particles such as PM 2.5.

Indeed, the yearly averages for PM 2.5 have increased in the winter of 2018-2019 compared to previous years. 

Ironically, the air pollution is being driven by policies related to “clean energy” such as Thailand’s “Alternative Energy Development Plan” (2015-2036) promoting renewable energy use. Another policy is “Thailand 4.0”, an industry based economic model of development intended to propel Thailand into higher-income country status.

A central aspect of these policies is the development of biofuel crops. The Alternative Energy Development Plan aims for renewables to contribute to 30 percent of total energy consumption by 2036 with biofuels contributing to 6%. 

Thailand 4.0 aims to promote the development of bioeconomy industries such as bioenergy, biochemicals and biotechnology targeting using commodity crops such as sugarcane.

Renewable energy policies like the use of biofuels are supposed to ameliorate air pollution by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from petroleum fuel combustion. The Thai government is pushing policies promoting mixed fuels that blend biofuel with traditional petroleum fuels particularly for use in the land transport sector. In 2019, the Ministry of Energy announced plans to mainstream the use of gasohol E20- a 20% blend of sugarcane or cassava ethanol with 80% traditional petroleum fuel as well as B10- a biodiesel blend of 10% crude palm oil and 90% traditional petroleum fuel in automobiles.

Inevitably, these policies drive the expansion of biofuel crops, as evident in the case of sugarcane. According to data from Thailand’s Office of Cane and Sugar Board, sugarcane plantation area increased from 1,088,000 hectares in 2008 to 1,840,000 in 2018. The 10-year Cane and Sugar Strategy (2015-2026) anticipates further expansion to 2,560,000 hectares by 2026.

Cane burning during the harvest season between January and March contributes to increases in concentrations of PM 2.5. The Isaan Record, a news agency for the North-eastern region, in September 2019 found that the burning of sugarcane areas is directly linked to PM 2.5 hot spot areas.

More troubling is the insidious reason behind the burning. 

According to BioThai, a foundation working on issues of biodiversity and community rights, cane farmers are burning 40 to 60% of the sugarcane stubble in their fields rather than removing it manually to save on labor costs. They simply cannot afford to pay workers to cut sugarcane nor afford the technology such as harvesters to clear their fields.

This points to the deeper underlying issue of poverty and strife amongst the nearly 340,000 cane growers, about half of which are small holders. 

Thawatchai Sriwiboon a small holder sugarcane farmer in Khoen Koen province in Northeastern Thailand told the Isaan record, “After a year of work, me and my wife don’t have much money left. But we have no way out. We have to deal with the fact that the price of sugarcane is going down.” 

Farmers struggle to make ends between labor costs and loans repayment to mills and the government agriculture bank taken out for fertilizers, pesticides and equipment rentals.

The haze in Thailand therefore represents the culmination of issues related to social equality, sustainability and corporate responsibility as well as the fragmented policy approaches from different government ministries in addressing these issues. 

Bioeconomy development under the Thailand 4.0 model is intended to “[enhance] the quality of life enhancement, [improve]social fairness, [reduce] environmental risks, and [reduce]environmental scarcity” as stated in Thailand’s 20-year National Strategic Plan (2017-2036), however, its link to the haze and poverty within farmers shows that it has not yet achieved its intended goals.

The issues associated with biomass burning also go beyond Thailand’s borders into neighbouring countries. 

Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia are major areas for growing commodity crops where open burning is also taking place. 

NASA’s satellite data from 2019 reveal the widespread fires in these countries, which potentially also contribute to the haze in Bangkok. 

“Burning activities as far as 720 km away from Bangkok, an area which extends into Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, can cause air problems in Bangkok” stated Worasom Kundhikanjana.

Effective policy interventions will require collaborative efforts amongst multiple stakeholders domestically and regionally, targeted at improving farmers’ livelihoods to change behaviour with support from government and the private sector. 

Under the Bioeconomy Initiative, the Stockholm Environment Institute (Asia) is seeking effective policy interventions using “evidence-based research” and engagement with diverse stakeholders with the goal of promoting an inclusive and sustainable bioeconomy in Thailand.

Views expressed in the published article exclusively belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of Bangkok Tribune.