A lack of ambition at COP26 puts Thailand’s future at risk

This November, the 197 member countries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will gather in Glasgow to negotiate the world’s collective fate in combatting climate change. Thailand was recently ranked as 9th in the world for vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather. However, as of the time of writing, Thailand’s stance towards successfully reducing carbon emissions risks falling short.

137 countries around the world have so far pledged to reach carbon neutrality. Most of these countries’ commitments have been announced in the runup to this latest Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP26. Most commitments are centred around achieving this goal by 2050 with currently only Bhutan and Suriname having already achieved this ambition.

Why is this goal so important? 

Carbon neutrality means to reduce net carbon emissions to zero through a combination of cuts to existing emissions, absorbing carbon through carbon sinks and offsetting emissions. It is a goal recognised by most leading scientists as the only way that countries can truly get emissions down sufficiently to stave off the worst effects of human induced climate change or global heating.

Scientists believe we must reduce global emissions to cap temperature rises to under 1.5°C if we are to avoid climatic ‘tipping points’ whereby emissions concentrations will lead to an uncontrollable cascade of warming events. Tipping points could include methane being released from Siberian permafrost, Antarctica ice sheets melting, large-scale coral reef die-offs and forest fires.  Worryingly, average global temperatures for January-August 2021 were already 0.82°C above average

Why is COP26 so important? 

The last COP meeting where countries made pledges – formally known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the UNFCCC was in Paris in 2015. This was seen as a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change as countries took the first steps towards capping and reducing carbon emissions. However, these pledges on their own would only help countries limit warming to 3 °C – far above the 1.5 °C threshold to prevent runaway global warming.

This means that previous country pledges are expected to be renewed and made more ambitious at COP26 in Glasgow. Most climate scientists argue that if a substantive and globally unanimous set of pledges is not achieved that there will be little chance to pull back from the brink.

ASEAN’s pledges and path to carbon neutrality. 

Amongst ASEAN countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Singapore have already made pledges or are laying out policies towards carbon neutrality targets. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have not. The Royal Thai Government has only recently announced that it will evaluate whether it can achieve this goal by 2065 – 15 years after much of the world. 

CountryPledge statusCarbon emissions  (kilotons – 2019)Carbon emissions as % of world total2021 GDP (billion USD)
BruneiX7,0200.0215.28
Cambodia2050 target16,4880.0427.24
Indonesia2060 (policy document)625,6631.651,158.78
Laos2050 (policy document)6,7830.0220.44
MalaysiaX248,8330.65387.09
Myanmar2050 target48,3110.1376.2
PhilippinesX150,6400.4402.64
Singapore2050-210053,3650.14374.39
ThailandDiscussions for 2065275,0650.72538.74
VietnamX305,2490.8354.87
Total1,737,4175 3,355.67

Table ranks countries within ASEAN by their carbon neutrality status, emissions and their GDP (gross domestic product).

Although ASEAN may only emit 5% of the world’s total carbon emissions as of 2019, regional and unanimous reductions in emissions across the bloc are the only fair solution to tackling climate change in the region. Thailand is ranked third in the bloc – contributing 275,065 kilotons or 15.8% of total ASEAN emissions – and yet it has one of the least ambitious climate targets across the region. 

The fact that Thailand has the second highest GDP within the ASEAN bloc behind Indonesia begs the question why can’t more be done and why can’t it be done faster? The three least developed countries in the bloc – Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have all either introduced or are aiming to introduce ambitious targets so why not Thailand? 

What will global heating bring to Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia is already predicted to be one of the hardest hit regions in the world due to climate change. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the region will face rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and more intense rain storms – predicted to intensify by 7% for each degree of warming. 

MapDescription automatically generated
Research conducted by Climate Central shows that much of Bangkok and its surrounding provinces will be affected by sea level rises and annual floods by 2050

The Global Climate Risk Index for 2021 placed Myanmar (ranked in second place), the Philippines (4th) and Thailand (9th) in the top ten countries most affected by extreme weather between 2000 and 2019. This Index analyses past weather events but is designed to give some indication of which countries are most at risk from future climatic changes over the next 30 years. 

Many of Southeast Asia’s coastal cities will be heavily impacted by flooding and sea level rises. Megacities such as Jakarta and Bangkok are especially at risk, with floods likely to affect 10s of millions of people and a significant portion of national GDPs. 10% of Thailand’s population currently lives on land likely to be inundated by 2050. Based on these bleak predictions and the urgency of the situation, why is not more being done to take this issue seriously on the international stage?  

Thailand is already in the midst of experiencing climate change aggravated weather events – raging fires in the north and central regions, flooding across the country including in Bangkok and droughts. These events are akin to Thailand’s canaries in the coal mine – an ominous warning for things to come if no action is taken. The fact that nearly one million people across Thailand are experinecing flooding in October 2021, a decade after the historic floods of 2011 shows a worrying lack of action or learning in mitigating these events. Are these floods emblematic for the fate of the country when it comes to climate change mitigation as a whole?

What can be done?

Currently Thailand’s NDC or its pledge includes a plan to reduce its GHG emissions by 20% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. However, a longer term strategy past 2030 was yet to be formulated with most attention paid to on adaptation rather than mitigation. 

Much of the focus of Thailand’s 20% reduction target currently relies on the manufacturing and transport sectors making drastic cuts – 74% of the entire target. Whereas the largest emitter – power production – is only required to cut emissions by 20%. This is despite the sector hosting some of the dirtiest coal and oil power stations still in operation in the country.

Thailand needs to look much further into the future and must give itself much more ambitious targets if it is to have any chance of staving off disaster. 

Chart, pie chartDescription automatically generated

For Thailand to shy away from its commitments and to leave the issue to more developed countries to solve robs the country of an opportunity to showcase Thailand as a leader in tackling climate change on the international stage.  

Approaching COP26 and future climate negotiations with ambitious and substantive targets could help herald new technologies and industries to Thailand that would help limit the environmental, social and economic damage that inevitable warming will bring. These innovations could help drive Thailand’s mitigation and adaptation efforts to ensure that climatic impacts are minimised. 

Thailand could provide subsidies or tax breaks for green power production, electric vehicles and plant-based foods. Efforts to promote a circular economy approach could also incentivise the use of recycled materials in manufacturing – helping to encourage individual and corporate demands for less carbon intensive products.

It would be in the Royal Thai Government’s best interests to act now and send a strong message to the Thai people and to COP26 by ensuring that our leaders confront the issue seriously and transparently. The first step would be to declare who is travelling to represent Thailand’s position at the upcoming summit. Will Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha follow other world leader examples in attending?

Thailand is predicted to lose out horribly due to climate change, putting thousands of people’s lives in danger and countless coastal communities at risk of being submerged. In the interests of transparency and commitment it would be the humane and just response to demonstrate to the Thai public that the Thai Government is taking this issue seriously and will travel to COP26 with the best interests of the country and the planet on their agenda.

About the author: 

Dominic Chakrabongse works for an international environmental organisation as well as being an independent environmental expert. He has worked on issues affecting fisheries, labour abuse issues in fishing and more recently marine pollution and how to implement a circular economy approach to fishing net and household plastic waste.

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