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The conference began with an overview of ‘the state of the climate before and during the pandemic’ by Dr. Kollawat Sakhakara from the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning. He underlined the effects of the pandemic resulting in an obvious drop of carbon dioxide emissions, while on the other hand, causing unprecedented economic and social disruption. In terms of environmental protection, even before the COVID outbreak, Thailand approved UN positions saying that climate change mitigation and sustainability are among the country’s priorities. So, in the post-COVID area, as well as with regard to the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development of the United Nations, Thailand’s environmental policy will continue quite the same, said Dr. Kollawat. But, in his opinion, the authorities and the whole society should consider which aspect or detail they want to focus on, in order to respond to the coronavirus aftermath. COVID 19 recovery plans should aim to achieve benefits for the whole society and include climate change adaptation and mitigation, so the expert. He also mentioned the concept of ‘green recovery’ with following examples: enforcing rules and regulations for the use of green areas; improving green technologies and innovation for renewable energy or waste management; supporting community participation; setting control measures for natural resource convention. Pushing for a green economic recovery, the country could holistically optimize its potential to achieve people’s well-being and become a more resilient society. For instance, agricultural and tourism sector would benefit a more sustainable approach.
The discussion round started with Dr. Buntoon Srethasirote from the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute (GSEI). Dr. Buntoon is also a member of the National Reform Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. He mentioned the national reform plan on energy that has been gradually implemented by the government. The plan aims to support renewable energy; improve the competitiveness of low-carbon products and green electricity; deregulation of household solar cells; and educate people through soft power such as artworks. He stated that no matter how the world will emerge to a new world order or not after the pandemic, the public still needs to keep an eye on the authorities – to include environmental aspects or climate change mitigation policies into the economic stimulus package. For him, the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council should be a pioneer in this regard – leading the way for structural changes. Accordingly, the country could tackle an economic downturn, a health crisis, and environmental issues at the same time.
Mr. Tara Buakamsri, Thailand Country Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, presented his views as a representative of the civil society. The world, including Thailand, has seen the rise of a young generation taking action against climate change before the pandemic, he said. But, in his opinion, there might be no real differences between pre and post COVID. So far, economic development and environmental protection contradict each other, and dilemmas happen all the time. For instance, the country continues with land reclamation and fossil-fuel power plants, he noted. All this happens even if the environment goal has been endorsed. Mr. Tara argued that public policies should function to build some immunity in responding to any disruption for the whole society, not only for a certain group. The more un-coordinated and fractured the country is, the less clear the direction is for a green recovery and low-carbon policy. Besides, policy communities, such as think tanks, should provide space for public hearings and engagements, and also for building trust among people.
In terms of media and communication, Mr. Wannasingh Prasertkul, a documentary maker and social media influencer, underlined that the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions during the coronavirus crisis is not due to more awareness regarding climate change per se, but simply the effect of the lockdown. Thus, the virus is not the right way to tackle this issue. The society should find ways to reduce emissions while people can still live their lives as normally as possible, without drastic behavioural changes. One possibility, so the influencer, is to introduce them to green innovation, transportation, etc. Communicating about environment and climate topics to the mass public in the present day is hard since it is an abstract long-term goal. Also, the difficulty depends on how complex the topic is. Every issue basically relies on various levels of responsibility ranging from the local to the global without clear boundaries. This makes the topics more difficult and delicate to communicate about. In comparison, the plastic ban introduced last year in Thailand was easier, more comprehensible, and tangible. For Mr. Wannasingh, a policy shift in this regard is very crucial and he recommended the media exercise their skills by keeping the society informed and shaping public opinion. The media should position themselves clearly and explain their positions to the government and policymakers on the one hand, and the people on the other hand, in order to achieve some policy shift, so Mr. Wannasingh.
The conference ended with a Q&A session and reflections from the audience. Many participants argued that Thailand should integrate good practices for the environment and the climate into the country’s main policies, or in other words should go for environmental mainstreaming strategies. So, in this setting, if other urgent situations arise, the environment would still be on the government’s radar screen. This attempt should include good practices for the agricultural sector, forest management, and precision farming as well as regulations against cronyism, among other things. In this regard, COVID 19 could be considered a fire drill in order to get ready for future crises, and also a unique occasion for the media to amplify the climate issue and how it is related to the coronavirus crisis.