Striving for sustainable energy in Thailand

Published on
March 31, 2017

Thailand has a more progressive energy policy than many other countries in Southeast Asia. But civilians and environmental activists should have a bigger say. A chapter in the newly published Routledge Handbook of Transitions to Energy and Climate Security comprehensively yet concisely describes the development of Thai energy policy in terms of energy security, modernity and sustainability, climate change and the rise of public awareness.

Lately the military regime in Thailand decided to delay the construction of a new coal-fired power station in the touristic province Krabi. Local communities, academics and activists, who fear pollution and damage to the eco-tourism industry, protested fiercely. In addition, they claim that the country already has a sufficient energy supply and that more investments in cleaner, renewable energy should be made. As a consequence, the regime has now promised to carry out a proper environmental assessment with public consultation. This is not an isolated incident in Thailand. The recently published Routledge Handbook of Transitions to Energy and Climate Security contains a chapter that sheds light on the background of energy policies and sustainability in Thailand. The chapter, “Transitions to energy and climate security in Thailand,” has been written by Adam Simpson from the University of South Australia and Mattijs Smits from Wageningen University & Research.

Influence of local communities

The first electricity system in Bangkok in 1884, constructed by a Danish company, served the members of the royal family and wealthy city areas. This model has set the example for today. According to the authors, Thailand has largely focused on energy security and economic competitiveness “when the benefits have accrued to industries owned and controlled by elite networks, at the expense of climate security and environmental justice.”
The country has secured its energy supply mainly through the construction and use of hydropower dams, gas pipelines and coal-fired power plants, evoking growing resistance of local communities, environmental activists, academics and NGOs over the last thirty years. Despite the dangers that protesters face - between 2001 and 2005 at least twenty activists and community leaders were killed in unsolved circumstances - sometimes they can influence state decisions. The authors illustrate both the failures and successes of environmental activism by highlighting two campaigns, against a gas pipeline and a coal-fired power plant.

Climate change

It might not come as a surprise that Thailand has begun to ‘outsource’ the environmental pollution and risks associated with large dams and fossil fuel extraction to its poorer neighbours, Laos and Myanmar. At the same time Thailand has one of the most progressive renewable energy policies in the region thanks to subsidy regulations established in 1992. For example, there are a large number of small entrepreneurs producing solar energy. However, in recent years there have been significant backward steps under the military government. Because of the country’s sensitivity to flooding and extreme weather as a consequence of climate change, the government would be wise to take sustainability into account. “Dominant sectors of society may be privileged in any policy response that attempts to either mitigate or adapt to climate insecurities”, the writers argue. “It is for this reason that it is crucial that environmental activists, and civil society more generally, are able to give voice to marginalised actors in society.”