On climate change, Thailand is not cutting it

Here we go again. Thursday it was India that joined the ranks of developing economies to announce significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in advance of the United Nations climate change discussions that begin in Copenhagen today.

So where is Thailand? When are we going to demonstrate any seriousness about our role in reducing emissions? After all, scientists warn that we're poised to receive a disproportionate share of the impact of global climate change. Our shores and coastal communities will be significantly impacted if the world as a whole does not start embarking on a major CO2 diet. Bangkok in particular will face major problems from flooding and sea level rise but, so far, hardly a word from our nation's leaders who reside here.

And rest assured, says Thailand's leading climate scientist, Dr Anond Snidvongs of Chulalongkorn University, these warnings stand on sound science and should not be taken any less lightly despite the emergence of ‘‘climategate' at the UK's Climate Research Unit. The content of a few personal emails from CRU scientists that have now come to light may provide climate change deniers someadditional media attention, but it does not override the extensive evidence that we are causing dramatic changes to our climate.India's announcement will hopefully allow discussions and the media to get back on track, and help further progress toward a global emission reduction agreement.

India intends to curb emissions by reducing its carbon intensity by 20 to 25% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output.

India's announcement came just a week after China pledged even deeper cuts: reducing carbon intensity levels by 40 to 45% by 2020, compared with 2005 levels.

While some may charge that such initiatives will still allow total emissions in these countries to rise, they are nonetheless slowing their emissions' trajectories, a major shift in policy from their staunch opposition to any targets just two years ago.

Several Asian economies are pledging absolute cuts. South Korea announced last month that it would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 30%by 2020. Indonesia stunned delegates during the recent United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convection meeting in Bangkok when it committed to a 26 to 41% reduction over the same period. From Latin America, Brazil has just announced plans for a 39% reduction from projected 2020 levels: this from a country that has been one of the most adamant opponents of emission caps.

So where is Thailand? Standing still. Our strategy as Copenhagen gets underway is the same as it was a decade ago, sit on the sidelines and watch what others do.We always say we want to be leaders, to position ourselves as hubs of innovation and commerce, but when it comes to climate change our response has at best been one of mild opportunism.

We've really only seen action on two fronts. First, nuclear power proponents have invested time and resources advancing plans for dangerous power plants that are neither needed nor wanted. And second, a cadre of carbon trading profiteers have recently set up shop in Thailand to exploit weak government oversight, allowing them to market new energy projects as carbon-cutting schemes, when in fact these projects are nothing more than the business-as-usual expansion of the country's energy infrastructure.

Thailand tries to present itself as a grownup society, but time and time again we prove to the world that we've got a long way to go. When it comes to climate negotiations, we're certainly unprepared for the world stage.

Routinely the response from Thai politicians and industry titans has been that we can't commit to emission cuts because they would hinder economic growth. Well, this certainly does not seem to be a deal-breaking barrier for other economies. Moreover, what of the economic impact on Thailand if the world does not cooperate: the cost of additional infrastructure for adaptation, natural disaster response, crop losses and additional public health problems?

Thailand is already on the front lines when it comes to climate change impacts, but we sit on the back-benches when it comes to shouldering responsibility for change. Our carbon footprint is about six tonnes per capita per year, three times that of India and Brazil and four times that of Indonesia and China. So while the Thai delegation may be going to Copenhagen empty handed, hopefully it will recognise that the world is changing around them, and it's time for Thailand to commit to doing its fair share to help minimise the impact of this growing crisis.

Also published by The Bangkok Post.