Thailand needs to work more closely with the public if it hopes to pull of its just energy transition

Thailand's current practices and policies only include some of the elements that will be needed to achieve their ambitious commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2065-2070.

Thailand has declared an ambitious commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2065-2070. But the country’s current practices and policies only include some of the elements that will be needed to achieve this in a just and equitable manner, or even at all. 

In particular, more attention needs to be paid to the needs of the public, especially those whose livelihoods are likely to be most affected by the planned move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, according to Kiriya Kulkonkan, associate professor in the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University.

An essential first step by the government, she says, must be to raise public awareness of the environmental imperative to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to combat rising global temperatures. There is hardly any discussion among the general Thai public of the need for clean energy, and even less of the social dimension of the required shift. And where there is such discussion, it is often focussed on the perceived threat of job losses in the energy and manufacturing sectors.

This concern is to some extent legitimate, Kulkonkan says. Thailand needs to spend more resources ensuring that workers who currently depend on the fossil-fuel sector are supported in the new labour landscape. This includes the many workers in the country’s automotive industry when those factories re-tool to produce more electric cars.

“As electric car production requires more sophisticated knowledge and technology to produce, workers in the automotive industry who cannot keep up with new skills are starting to have concerns over their job security,” she says.

“To help workers maintain their jobs, the government needs to take action to reassure their skill development. Today, a modified vocational education program shows some signs of progress for entry-level workers but none for those currently working.” 

Although the government has devised social welfare schemes and remedy plans for those who lose jobs, the transition will be more just, Kulkonkan insists, if these workers can instead engage in the renewable energy industry.

But overall, there are indications that a shift for renewables could provide a boost in employment, she says. In a 2017 study, she examined the impact of government efforts to mitigate global warming on how jobs were created, preserved, lost or modified. “On a positive note, findings in other countries show that the number of new jobs in renewable energy will be greater than lost jobs,” she says. “In the case of Thailand, solar power plants need a larger number of human labour than electric power plants because they depend more on human installation and maintenance.”

Export opportunities are also increasingly shifting towards renewable technology, she says, in reference to legislation to efforts by countries with an established history of importing from Thailand to boost domestic use of electric vehicles. “Once a production centre of gas [petrol or diesel] vehicles, the country fears it will face export problems with countries that no longer take gasoline cars,” she said. Such factors could include the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). In light of this trend, Kulkonkan views positively the government’s “30/30” strategy, which aims for zero-emission vehicles to make up at least 30 percent  of Thailand’s total automotive production by 2030.

Other recommendations include more government support for consumers to help meet any increased energy costs, and a reform of the structure of electricity businesses in Thailand as the current power plant concession agreements mostly benefit the private owners.

Moving away from fossil fuels towards “clean” energy also brings new environmental challenges, which will require suitable government attention. The batteries that power electrical vehicles require minerals such as lithium, which takes large amounts of water and energy to produce, as well as the local impacts of mining on land and communities.

The just energy transition will require effective justice at three levels: procedural, distributive and restorative. Procedural justice means that the process for designing policies is bottom-up and involves stakeholders at all stages. Distributive justice is achieved when policy focuses on ensuring the benefits of the shift are spread as equitably as possible, and in particular that anyone suffering a negative impact from the energy transition is appropriately supported. And restorative justice involves addressing the historical impact on communities from long-term fossil-fuel use. But there is no concrete restoration plan for areas or groups affected by social and environmental injustice from conventional industries. The challenge of Thailand’s energy framework remains a lack of distributive justice and restorative justice elements, which will be necessary if our country is to develop a just transition going forward.

Overall, in Kulkonkan’s eyes the latest, 13th National Economic and Social Development Plan reflects a positive attitude towards a just energy transition. However, she sees some traps in practice, such as conflicts of interest among environmental board members who also benefit from the existence of coal-fired power plants.

To mitigate these and other concerns, the government needs to create a negotiating table where a diverse group of participants is invited to voice their concerns. “Economic mechanisms like price or tax mechanisms can be utilised without the need to disrupt market mechanisms,” she says. “A just intervention is possible.”

This article summarizes updates and insights originally published in Thai language by the SDG Research and Support Programme (SDG Move) of the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University. SDG Move is a partner of our FES Thailand Office based in Bangkok. For further updates and information about our work in the country, please visit their website or follow them on social media.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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