Mother Nature’s still crying

From floods and extreme weather, to climate change and the adoption of the Bio-Circular-Green economy, the environment was uppermost in the minds of many in 2022.

Excess water around Suvarnabhumi Airport is diverted through drainage channels which lead to the Gulf of Thailand. The network of canals helped protect the airport from flooding caused by this year’s unusually intense rainfall. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

1.Extreme weather turmoil

For Thais, especially those who reside in low-lying areas and flood plains, 2022 was another year of floods and extreme weather.

Throughout the year, Thailand experienced a series of unseasonal weather events and unusually intense rainfall, which led to major floods in many parts of the country.

The year 2022 began with intensive floods in the South. In February, heavy rains over the southern region of Thailand, brought by an intense low-pressure cell, triggered flash floods that affected over 12,000 households in seven southern provinces.

The rainy conditions that continued throughout the year led to two more major floods in several provinces in the North, Northeast, and Central Plains during the rainy season, as extreme precipitation induced by stronger monsoons and the influence of tropical storms caused major rivers to overflow.

According to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, about 1,700 households, mostly in the northern and western parts of the country, were affected by the first flood in May, while more than 528,000 households in 59 provinces suffered from the larger flood that occurred in the rainy season from September to November.

Bangkok was not spared either, as data from National Water Command Center showed the city encountered a historic amount of rainfall — 1,979.5 millimetres — during the first three quarters of 2022, which exceeded the 30-year average in Bangkok for the same period of around 1,348.9 millimetres by 46.7%.

Large parts of Thailand also experienced an extraordinary cold spell in the midst of summer as temperatures dropped by up to 7 degrees Celsius for a few days in early April.

Although the Meteorological Department said this year’s abnormal weather was a direct result of a strong La Nina condition in the Pacific Ocean, it is undeniable that climate change is the ultimate cause.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the world would face even bigger weather extremes in the future. Building up climate resilience is a major aspect of climate action that Thais need to focus on to cope with the upcoming impacts of climate change.

City Hall officials remove debris along Klong Lat Phrao in Huai Khwang district to prevent flooding in surrounding areas back in July. Pornprom Satrabhaya

2. COP27 summit upsets

The annual climate change conference was a focal point for attention on the environmental issue, as this year’s climate summit in Egypt included negotiations on many crucial issues that are essential in driving global actions to mitigate climate change.

The 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP27), held on Nov 6-20 at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, was highly anticipated to be an “implementation COP” that would see climate pledges which each The country had made at the previous COP give way to balanced action in tackling climate change and preparing for its effects.

At COP27, the Thai government delegation, led by Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa, announced progress in tackling climate change and implementing carbon reduction plans.

Thailand now has strategic plans for both short-term and long-term climate mitigation.

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is now in the progress of legislating the Climate Change Act and establishing a new Department of Climate Change to be the main official agency to coordinate climate actions.

The parties reached a breakthrough agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters.

Despite that, environmental campaigners and climate activists globally were disappointed by the conference.

They denounced the failure of this year’s climate summit to come up with “meaningful” climate actions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as per the Paris Agreement’s Long-Term Temperature Goal.

They also raised concerns over the fossil fuels industry’s dominance in climate negotiations, which they said led to a lack of action to fulfill the net zero target by phasing out fossil fuels.

Instead, the conference turned into a platform for these powerful conglomerates to “greenwash” their polluting business operations with (in their view) questionable mechanisms such as carbon credit trading and carbon offsets.

Since climate deals have yet to emerge that are strong enough to achieve the 1.5deg C climate stabilization target, the upcoming round of climate negotiations at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates is seen as being even more significant.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa at the 2022 United Nations Framework Conference for Climate Change (COP27) in Egypt in November. UNFCCC

3. Wildlife smuggling lively

Despite efforts to conserve endangered species and crack down on wildlife crimes, the transborder trafficking and illegal trading of wild animals is still a major threat to the survival of many rare wildlife species.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry announced a rejig of subordinate legislation under the Wild Animal Conservation and Protection Act to strengthen the ability to conserve and protect wild animals.

The cabinet also approved the listing of the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) as the latest addition to the list of reserved wild animals, which is the highest tier conservation status under Thai law, to better protect this critically-endangered species of hornbill from being hunted for its casque.

Nevertheless, the arrest of suspects in the illegal wildlife trade continues to be made almost every week.

Many of these cases concern the trafficking of pangolin, elephant ivory, and other wildlife parts, which are transported through Thailand as part of an international wildlife trade to be sold as traditional medicines in China.

Officers found that transborder trafficking of live tiger cubs also increased this year. They were intercepted on their way to Laos.

The tiger cubs were bred in Thailand and then sold to farms in neighboring countries. They are eventually butchered as ingredients for medicinal tiger soup for Chinese consumers. An investigation also found that trafficking of tiger cubs is linked with transborder organized criminal gangs.

Thailand also remains a hub of wildlife trafficking for the exotic pet trade. A recent report by TRAFFIC said that almost 1,000 live animals were seized this year at Suvarnabhumi Airport as part of attempts to smuggle them as exotic pets outside the country.

Authorities take care of four tiger cubs rescued from animal smuggler Thanad Wongsarn, 63, in Mukdahan. Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division

4. Water projects divisive

Almost every time the government or private investors propose big projects, controversies emerge amid concerns about the adverse impacts of the projects on the environment and the wellbeing of local communities.

These controversies often developed into regional conflicts. As both sides have solid reasons to stand their ground, these conflicts usually boil over into protests on the streets in Bangkok.

The authorities’ plans to develop a series of sea walls, embankments, check dams, reservoirs, and water diversion projects along coastlines and every river basin throughout the country have proved no exception.

The changes have been approved under the government’s budget plans for 2022/2023 fiscal years. The sea wall and embankment projects are overseen by the Public Works and Town & Country Planning Department and Marine Department, while the irrigation projects come under the Office of National Water Resources and Royal Irrigation Department respectively.

The developers and their supporters say the projects are essential for helping the country cope with the impacts of climate change, as sea walls will prevent further shoreline erosion from rising sea levels, while new irrigation infrastructure development will improve water management efficiency.

However, these projects also have been viewed as threats to natural resources and the livelihoods of local communities by environmentalists. They warn that building concrete structures over beaches and riverbanks and damming rivers with large-scale water projects will degrade fragile rivers and coastal wetlands ecosystems.

More than 48,115 water development projects with a total budget of 353 billion baht (US$9.7 billion) are scheduled for construction nationwide this fiscal year.

Many of the projects have been approved without proper public consultation or environmental impact assessments, so the voices of the affected communities are left out. These conflicts are likely to continue to be another big environmental problem in the upcoming year.

Thai silk depicting the bio-circular-green economic model is seen at the 19th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok. Somchai Poomlard

5. BCG model under fire

The adoption of the Bangkok Goals on the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy has been hailed by the government as a major achievement from the 29th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders’ Meeting, held in November in Bangkok.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the BCG is Apec’s first comprehensive set of goals on sustainability and inclusivity, and focus on four key areas: climate change mitigation, sustainable trade and investment, environmental conservation, and waste management.

The Apec conference was told that the BCG Economy Model could help achieve sustainable, balanced, and inclusive economic recovery from Covid-19 and build resilience against future shocks. It was seen as a catalyst to shift the public mindset toward more responsible business models, in which growth objectives are pursued in tandem with environmental sustainability.

Despite the positive portrayal of the BCG Economy, environmental activists said some parts of the framework are “greenwashed” economic measures that actually set back sustainable development goals.

The BCG Economy also paid scant consideration to powerless people, as it focuses mainly on big business operators, they said.

One aspect that has been heavily criticized is climate change mitigation. The BCG model promotes carbon credit trading as a mechanism to attain the decarbonisation goal, as business operators can use carbon credits from reforestation to offset carbon emissions from their business. However, Tara Buakamsri, Thailand Country Director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said this mechanism is flawed, as it does not encourage the actual reduction of carbon. It does not provide much benefit to the climate, but merely helps make businesses appear greener.

He also said carbon trading can also lead to issues with carbon colonialism, as elite groups from wealthy countries can take advantage of the carbon market mechanism to seize the land and natural resources of powerless citizens in poorer countries.

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