This column was first published as a lead op ed on October 14, then was overtaken by events. It asks the key question about Rama IX’s legacy, the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy. Unlike Bhutan’s Buddhist-economic-based theory of Gross National Happiness, the PSE has made no progress internationally. The Prayut Administration controls the message regarding the PSE domestically. Whether it actually cares about the PSE can therefore only be measured by whether it makes the PSE work internationally.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T. S. Eliot.
‘The Waste Land’, IV
The latest 2016 World Bank data confirms that Thailand is mired in the middle-income trap. Despite rapid growth from the 1960s to 1980s, Thai investments contracted heavily after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, productivity has deteriorated, and R&D as percentage of GDP is low. The result is worsening income inequality and difficulties in expanding social welfare. Further, global climate change menaces Bangkok's very survival. Thailand can nonetheless innovate its way forwards.
The crucial step is to transform global climate change into an opportunity. The threat is clear. Last month marked the beginning of a new era. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 20 million years. Carbon dioxide contributes not just to global climate change, now nearly 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. It also causes ocean acidification, threatening much of our sea-based food web - a key Thai industry. Additionally, this year is expected to be the hottest on record.
However, on November 4 the Paris Agreement on climate change will come into force. Under its terms, ratifying countries, including Thailand, will commit to reductions in greenhouse gas outputs. Moreover, technologically more advanced countries will transfer technology to developing countries in order to help them innovate their way out of emitting greenhouse gases without harming their economies.
Fundamentally, humanity has committed to terraforming Earth, altering an entire planet's characteristics. The Paris Agreement is not the first time the human race has aimed for such a goal. The Montreal Protocol, which came into force on January 1, 1989, committed us to reducing the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in order to eliminate the holes in the ozone layer. The first universally ratified treaty, the protocol worked because significant technology transfer from the Global North to the Global South has cushioned the blow on developing countries via a multilateral fund.
Transforming Earth to combat global climate change requires three fundamental innovations. Two of these are increasingly achievable and have been championed by one of the world's leading entrepreneurs, Elon Musk. The first is electric vehicles, a vision conceived of by Tesla and now mass produced by General Motors in the form of the Chevy Bolt, available next year. The need to switch to electric vehicles is an absolute. Transport emits 14 per cent of our greenhouse gases. According to Climate Action Tracker, to keep the Paris Agreement on track, fossil-fuel driven cars must stop being manufactured by 2035, after which every car will have to be electric - 15 years in advance of most car companies' production timelines.
Thailand is in an excellent position to make the Paris Agreement work. As chair of the G-77, a United Nations voting bloc consisting of 134 member countries, until the end of this year, it should already be negotiating within the Paris Agreement framework to create a multilateral fund for technology transfer. The first goal is to accelerate the mass production of electric cars. Some of this transfer will directly benefit Thailand, which has the largest automotive industry in Southeast Asia and the 12th largest in the world.
Yet, Thailand is basically in the business of assembling vehicles. To innovate out of the middle income trap, it needs to start manufacturing components for electric vehicles such as the battery control unit, the control motor unit and the circuit control panel, presently imported from China. To do that, it needs to import know-how, which means competing with China by hiring researchers, technicians and scientists. However, it would also benefit from access to patents and funding for electric vehicle innovation from a Paris Agreement multilateral fund.
The second innovation is grid-level battery packs. Last month, Tesla announced it had been chosen by Southern California Edison to supply it with 80MWh of battery storage through its lithium-ion Powerpack. It is the steady developments in lithium-ion rechargeable battery technology - faster charge speeds, higher discharge rates, and smart technology to monitor battery safety - that will power a new world. Again, Thailand should be reaching out to companies like Tesla in order to transfer technology, both as Chair of the G77 through the Paris Agreement mechanism and as a leading automotive manufacturer.
The third innovation is in energy. There are only two routes to cheap clean energy. The first is renewables, which for many countries means solar. Ninety-five per cent of Thailand experiences sufficient sunshine to be cost efficient for photo-voltaic solar panels. Yet the country lacks a solar road map. And so far it has been singularly unsuccessful in uniting the G77 behind the principle of a global solar road map as part of the Paris Agreement negotiations, despite the oil-producing nations of the Middle East seeking to wean their economies off fossil fuels. In fact, Thailand is committed to several more coal-fired power stations, which will emit many times more greenhouse gases than the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas.
The second source is nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is the same power source as the sun and does not involve plutonium or uranium. It has been the goal of some of the world's best and brightest physicists. The most promising route to affordable fusion is "polywell" technology - a magnetic cage containing a super-dense plasma. Yet, Thailand has failed to lead the G77 into conversation with Western companies, which own most key fusion patents, to develop a global fusion road map, nor has it invested in fusion companies, unlike the more visionary and technologically advanced Malaysia.
Thailand has to innovate both to escape the middle-income trap and the perception of its becoming a Chinese pawn due to the rising Chinese hegemony and its reliance on the Chinese economy. Thailand must seize the initiative to develop wider international relations, an area where the Prayut administration stumbled when it failed to leverage its leadership of the G77 to acquire a UN Security Council seat. By establishing solar and fusion road maps for technology transfer as part of the Paris Agreement, Thailand can triumph in a way that will implement the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy globally. Otherwise, it will lose this moment in history.
Note: Originally published in The Nation as ‘Innovating Thailand out of Mediocrity’, co-authored with Peerasit Kamnuansilpa. Comments can be made on the page in The Nation.