Will Srettha’s administration have the political will to stop smog problem?

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Bangkok, a city famed for its cultural vibrancy and bustling street life, is now grappling with a persistent and dangerous environmental crisis: severe air pollution. At the heart of this crisis is the PM2.5 particulate matter, tiny particles that pose serious health risks due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. The smog in Bangkok, characterized by high levels of PM2.5, is a complex issue, with agricultural burning to support large-scale corporate agricultural operations being a significant contributing factor. With the new government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in power, there’s a pressing question: Will this administration confront the corporations that are implicated in these unhealthy practices?

Bangkok’s air pollution problem has reached alarming levels in recent years. The concentration of PM2.5 often exceeds safe limits, posing a threat not just to the environment but, more critically, to public health. The sources of PM2.5 in Bangkok are varied, but agricultural burning, especially of sugarcane and rice stubble, is a major contributor. Estimates suggest that biomass burning in the agricultural sector contributes anywhere from 24 to 38% of the PM2.5 levels in Bangkok, with the majority coming from sugarcane and rice burning​​.

The Thai government has acknowledged the severity of the situation and has put forth measures to combat the issue. These include ambitious goals like reducing areas prone to repeated burning by 50% and decreasing average PM2.5 particulate matter by 40%. Such measures signal a recognition of the need to address the root causes of air pollution. However, their effectiveness will largely depend on how well these policies are implemented and enforced​​.

The complexity of the smog problem in Bangkok is intensified by several factors. Vehicle emissions and industrial pollution contribute significantly to the air quality problem. Additionally, transboundary haze from neighboring countries adds to the complexity. The data linking high PM2.5 levels to agricultural burning becomes particularly evident when large-scale burning occurs in provinces surrounding Bangkok​​.

The administration of PM Srettha Thavisin has shown initial steps towards addressing the smog crisis. One notable initiative is the plan to impose taxes on companies importing farm produce from regions known for agricultural burning. This approach indicates a willingness to hold corporations accountable for their role in the pollution crisis. Additionally, the government is collaborating with the private sector on pollution control efforts, such as minimizing dust from construction projects, indicating a comprehensive strategy to tackle air pollution​​.

Yet, the challenge is formidable. Economic pressures and contract farming schemes drive many farmers to continue burning as a cost-effective method. This situation is exacerbated by national agricultural policies that have historically promoted the expansion of industries like sugarcane and rice. A lack of comprehensive data and the multifaceted nature of pollution sources further complicate efforts to fully address the problem​​​​.

In recent months, the levels of PM2.5 in Bangkok have frequently exceeded healthy limits, prompting urgent action from the government. Districts across the city have recorded unhealthy air quality levels, with certain areas reaching PM2.5 concentrations as high as 105.1 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). The Thai government has recognized this as a critical issue and has been actively discussing control measures. Notably, the state has launched a wildfire prevention campaign and is continuing to manage pollution in various ways. This includes a proposal to collect taxes from companies importing agricultural produce from areas known for burning practices, using the revenue to support anti-wildfire projects and farmers who adopt non-burning practices​​.

The problem of PM2.5 in Bangkok is not just an environmental issue; it has significant implications for public health and the tourism industry. Road traffic has also been identified as a cause of rising PM2.5 levels. In response, the government is considering measures to encourage the use of electric vehicles. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is collaborating with various agencies on pollution control. This includes offering discounts on oil changes for older vehicles and working with the Department of Land Transport to monitor vehicle emissions​​.

The health impacts of PM2.5 pollution are profound and far-reaching. Studies have shown a correlation between high levels of air pollution and increased rates of diseases such as asthma, respiratory infections, and even lung cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified outdoor air pollution and particulate matter in polluted air as carcinogenic. Recently, there was a shocking case of a young doctor in Chiang Mai, a region notorious for severe air pollution, being diagnosed with terminal-stage lung cancer, despite having a healthy lifestyle. This case has brought to the forefront the serious health risks associated with PM2.5 pollution. WHO has set stringent safe limits for average levels of PM2.5, and Thailand is moving towards tightening its standards in line with global trends​​.

Despite these efforts, the challenge of tackling PM2.5 pollution in Bangkok remains daunting.

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