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COP21 Climate Change Conference Puts Focus on Thailand’s Carbon Pollution Problem

On August 26th Khon Kaen University was visited by a joint EU-French delegation consisting of Mrs. Luisa Ragher, Deputy Head of EU Delegation, and Mr. Pierre Colliot, Counsellor for Culture and Cooperation (Embassy of France), guests at a seminar to emphasize the importance of the upcoming 21st Conference of Parties Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.

The key role of this conference is to prevent global warming from reaching two degrees above the 1990 baseline by 2030. This temperature increase would likely trigger a largely irreversible upwards temperature spiral which will see many of the world’s large coastal cities, including Bangkok, under threat from rising sea levels and their effective rendering uninhabitable by 2050-2070. Further, Trat, Chantaburi, and Krabi are all exposed to coastal erosion, which is already occurring.

The COP21 conference, which replaces the failed Kyoto Agreement, seeks to create a common legal framework that applies to all 195 countries, both developing and developed. According to Mrs. Ragher, it also aims to create “clear, fair, and ambitious targets for all countries based on evolving global economic and national circumstances”, as well as a rolling review of country targets and a framework for legal accountability.

Countries are required to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) – indicating the level of their commitment - by October 1st, 2015. China, the US, and the EU have already committed to INDC’s, as have another 26 countries. Mrs. Ragher indicated that she was “fully confident” that Thailand would be able to submit its INDC on time, and to that effect, the EU and France are working with the Thai authorities.

Thailand is in fact the 23rd largest carbon polluter in the world, though it is only the 80th in terms of per capita – its high absolute ranking is largely a factor of its size of population and medium-sized economy. However, its CO2 output has risen by 289% from 90,766 kilotons in 1990 to 262,228 kilotons in 2013, according to EDGAR, the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research. Reversing this trend will require serious commitment from the Thai government, including a visionary leadership towards a socially sustainable Thailand where the ecology is given equal weight to the economy. Instead, the Thai military is denying villagers access to publicly available information from Thai PBS (the Thai BBC) about oil concessions in Isan, an affront to multiple human right treaties guaranteeing freedom of access to information.

Moreover, as reported in The Nation, Thailand is “locked into a future based on another 20 gas power stations (17,728 MWe), another nine "clean coal" power stations (7,390 MWe), then 14,206 MW of renewable energy, including hydro, a large proportion of which will be imported from Laos or Myanmar” as well as up to two nuclear power plants. Regarding nuclear, given the fact Thailand cannot even maintain the service level of the airport link or guarantee the maintenance of its airport services, this option should be treated with concern bordering on alarm.

While gas power stations may be a reasonable development pathway given they are the least worst option of the fossil fuels, ‘clean coal’ technology at the moment is limited to sulfuric and nitric acids and particulates. The removal of carbon dioxide from power plants requires carbon sequestration techniques – presently in development and unproven, and therefore likely to be expensive - on an industrial scale. Moreover, the state should stop ordering mega-project power plants – notable for their corruption – and instead decentralize to provincial requirements by specifying the amount of energy that is required, not the type, with coal being blacklisted.

The alternative to coal means making good use of Thailand’s strengths. Mrs. Ragher pointed out the EU wants to work with Thailand on its INDC as it is a key country for them in the region – it is the second largest carbon polluter after Indonesia and is ahead of Malaysia. Moreover, it is a semi-tropical country and therefore has viable alternative ‘renewables’ such as biomass and solar, as in Thailand’s Low Carbon Society Vision 2030, as well as the less-developed ocean thermal. Even under this vision, 324,170 kilotons of CO2 will be emitted in 2030 – an increase of 124% from 2013 levels. So, drastic action is required if Thailand is to meet the COP21 target of driving down emissions from the 1990 baseline.

In fact, if Thailand is to begin reducing emissions at all, power plant emissions must be driven down through use of more efficient technologies, such as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT). In addition, energy savings must be created through insulation of industrial buildings and changeover to LED lights and more energy efficient appliances, including air conditioners and refrigeration.

Moreover, there needs to be a total paradigm shift in assessing the energy supply mix. Solar in particular is expected to contribute minimally to the energy mix under the Business as Usual scenario – at under 5%, even less than nuclear. Nonetheless, it is certainly capable of meeting the needs of several megatons of energy if integrated into new buildings a standard via rooftop solar or as urban solar via related solar farms and flow-battery storage, with the aim being net zero energy buildings, villages, and towns.

In terms of contributions universities and individuals can make, Khon Kaen University’s representative at the seminar pointed out that KKU possesses one net zero energy building and is experimenting with biogas generation as well as the use of NGV (buses). However, it was pointed out that KKU’s cycle lane policy is a failure as only one such route exits and students have not converted from using motorcycles. One problem, pointed out by a KKU student representative, is that global warming is simply not high on the average student’s radar.

It was clear from the seminar that emphasizing the need to reduce carbon pollution requires transformational leadership from the above as well as bold action. Instead of buying three Chinese submarines for 36 billion baht just because it has some spare money and an empty submarine base, the military government would be better advised considering the conditions in which they and their children will be living in one generation’s time. As such, it should roll out subsidies for university research on solar and boost urban solar and solar farming rather than buying toys for the boys.

 

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