Climate Change and the Ugly Truth About Thailand’s Relationship With Coal

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Climate change is an ongoing crisis: oceans are rising, glaciers are melting, and cities are sinking. Communities on the frontlines of this crisis are speaking out, and nations around the globe are committing to fight climate change by lowering their carbon emissions.  The recent UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn revisited the Paris Climate Agreement and Thailand sent sixty-three delegates, more than most similarly-sized countries in Asia, demonstrating the country’s commitment to fighting climate change. But despite this commitment, Thailand is investing in coal projects within Thailand and regionally.

Thailand’s investments in coal projects go directly against its supposed aim of lowering its carbon emissions. The coal industry is one of the largest contributors to CO2 emissions globally, responsible for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions, yet Thailand plans to draw 25 percent of its energy from coal by 2036. The people of the Mekong River region are already impacted by climate change: by a warming climate, droughts, and an environment increasingly unsuitable for agriculture. Thailand’s continued investment in coal will only bring further harm to the Mekong. Thailand’s continued domestic and outbound investment in coal impacts local communities and neglects its climate change commitments as well as anti-coal sentiment within Thailand and the Mekong.

Thai outbound coal investments in the region contribute to a problematic human rights record and drastically increase carbon emissions. The Thai government, Thai banks and enterprises all have invested in and supported coal power projects and mines within the Mekong Region. One example of Thai outbound investment within Southeast Asia is the Hongsa Coal Mine and Power Station in Laos. The $3.71 billion Hongsa Project has been backed by nine Thai banks. Thai investments also include coal projects in the Mon and Kayin States of Myanmar and Koh Kong, Cambodia, as well as two coal power plants in both East and South Kalimantan in Indonesia, spreading Thai outbound investment outside of the Mekong Region. Not only does the funding of any coal project directly contribute to climate change, but Thai investment in the region has negative impacts on local communities. In the case of the Thai-backed Ban Chaung Coal Project in the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar, many agricultural lands were seized without compensation, which left many farmers without livelihoods. These investments in coal contradict Thailand’s commitments to lowering their carbon emissions.

Thailand also invests in coal domestically. The proposed Thepha Power Station in Songkhla province, one of many coal projects in southern Thailand, threatens to impact local marine life and could produce 23,000 tons of ash per day. The only option suggested to deal with the ash is a landfill. Local fishermen are voicing concerns that nearby ocean temperatures could rise as the power station uses seawater for its cooling system, causing a detrimental impacts on local fisheries and impacting the livelihoods of thousands.

Thailand faces many risks due to climate change, such as increased health impacts: 71 million people could be at risk for malaria by 2070 if high emissions continue. Thailand’s agriculture sector stands to lose a lot as a direct result of climate change, with yields of rice and maize projected to decline by as much as 57 percent. This could have a devastating impact on Thailand meeting its food needs. Even more, Bangkok is sinking 10 centimeters annually as a direct result of rising sea waters brought on by climate change. Despite all this, Thailand continues to invest in coal.

Thailand justifies its continued reliance on coal and other fossil fuels by drastically overestimating its energy needs. Thailand’s Power Development Plan for 2015 to 2036 put together by the Ministry of Energy and endorsed by the National Energy Policy Council plans an increase in coal usage, from 20 percent of nation’s energy in 2014 to 25 percent of the nation’s energy source in 2036, with another fossil fuel, natural gas, still being its highest source at 40 percent. However, Thailand has actually overestimated future energy needs. Recognizing that many of these proposed coal projects are unnecessary is very important: the benefits simply do not outweigh the costs.

Resistance towards domestic and regional Thai-backed coal projects is evident. Thai citizens are risking their livelihoods against big corporations who prioritize profit over people. In the case of the Krabi Power Plant, another coal project in southern Thailand, protesters had a real impact by using grassroots organizing to call for an Environmental Health and Impact Assessment. As of October 2017, the project has been stalled. Another great example is the Break Free movement, which during 2016 played a fundamental role in strengthening the climate action and anti-coal movements in Thailand.

Grassroots organizing and “bottom-up” resistance towards energy and development projects are crucial, but it is also important that the Thai government take steps to regulate Thai enterprises’ involvement with coal both domestically and abroad. The Thai government has stated its commitment to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and civil society groups in Thailand and across the Mekong are using this to push the Thai government to regulate Thai outbound investments and their impacts on human rights and the environment. One step is for Thailand to create a National Action Plan (NAP) to regulate Thai outbound investment within the region. The NAP would regulate Thailand’s coal investments and confront its contributions to the climate change crisis head-on. This is the “top-down” portion to the anti-coal movement in Southeast Asia: the NAP would help the Thai government show that it will listen to the people of the Mekong region, prioritizing them over profit and over-estimated energy demands.

Thailand has made significant commitments globally to fighting climate change yet continues to invest in coal power projects both in Thailand and within the region. This continues despite impacts to local people, environments, and the hypocrisy of coal investments given Thailand’s carbon emission goals. Climate change is already impacting people in the Mekong Region; investing in coal only exposes these communities to further risk. It’s vital that Thailand take steps to regulate Thai outbound investment on coal projects as well as regulate domestic investment, prioritizing the people of the Mekong and the environment over profit.

This post was written by Erin McDonald, Campaigns Intern in ERI's Thailand office. Photo of Ban Chaung Coal Mine in Myanmar by Dawei Watch Thailand.

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