Bangkok and air pollution aren’t quite an oxymoron yet, but efforts are being made to make it so. Bangkok went from being a highly polluted city with terrible air pollution problems to a city with mostly good air quality. They are still working on the air around the elevated trains, and if their success with improving outdoor air quality plays out, the elevated trains will also have clean air around them soon.
Remarkably, the Thai language did not even have a word for “pollution” until 1976, when the official language arbiter coined the word “mollipat” meaning, “poison or toxins that come from impurity or dirtiness”. Today, Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, and air pollution make one of the most spectacular success stories in environmentalism. The once choking, humid, smoke-blackened skies of this Southeast Asian city are now clear blue most of the time. Bangkok’s air quality exceeds some U. S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, although it still falls short of more stringent European Union standards. This striking turnaround was achieved in a mere fifteen years despite monumental political challenges.
Thailand is notorious for its revolving governments, having experienced numerous military and civil coups in its modern history. But a small group of dedicated career bureaucrats kept up pressure on air pollution control efforts throughout changing regimes. They forced oil companies to produce cleaner-burning fuel; raised taxes on once-ubiquitous dirty two-stroke motorcycles; and converted all taxis to clean-burning liquefied petroleum gas. They overcame mostly Japanese car industry lobbyists to impose ever-higher European-based emissions standards. (Thailand had no emissions standards before 1992.)
Bangkok’s local government persuaded Buddhist crematoria to switch from wood-burning outdoor pyres to cleaner electric incinerators. Simple measures like washing the streets to keep down dust were implemented.
As a result, air pollution in the form of small particulate matter has declined by 47 percent over the past decade, even as the number of vehicles on Bangkok’s streets has increased by 40 percent. Today, particulate levels average 43 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from 81 ten years ago. The EU standard is 40 micrograms, while the U. S. EPA’s is 50.
“It’s possible for others to follow what we’ve done here,” Supat Wangwongwatana, director general of the pollution control department at Thailand’s Ministry of Environment, is fond of telling world environmental leaders.
None the less, air pollution remains a nagging problem in this fast-growing megacity of 10 million people. Paradoxically, the mass transit system that was supposed to cut emissions causes some of the highest concentrations or airborne dust particles. Pollution trapped beneath concrete platforms of elevated trainways can reach levels of 85-180 micrograms per cubic meter, far higher than the World Health Organization’s guideline of 20 micrograms. Traffic police still complain of gasoline’s stench and call for reductions in auto traffic.
Significantly, Thailand has shown that a thriving automobile industry is not incompatible with clean air. Thailand is Asia’s third-largest exporter of vehicles after Japan and Korea; it will produce 1.28 million cars and 3.5 million motorcycles this year. Thailand’s environmental minister continues to urge Japanese carmakers to produce cleaner vehicles for importation into Thailand.
Thailand totally banned leaded gasoline in 1995 (a year before the U. S. completed its gradual phase-out), and saw health-threatening lead levels in children’s blood drop from 10 percent of the population to 3 percent in just five years. Neighboring Indonesia did not stop producing leaded gasoline until 2006.
Taxes were raised on all forms of gasoline, and then lowered only on unleaded and other lower-polluting fuels. Similar sleight-of-hand policies accompany introduction of biodiesel and ethanol fuels, ensuring consumer acceptance of lower prices for cleaner-burning fuels.
Consumer support for air pollution reductions has been strong. Hundreds of volunteers turned out to videotape smoke-belching public buses, evidence that was used in a lawsuit to force the Bangkok public transit authority to retire aging, high-pollution portions of its fleet. Some environmental groups are calling for the revocation of licenses for dirty, two-stroke engine vehicles.
The history of Bangkok and air pollution clearly shows that it is possible to build a world-class economic powerhouse while dramatically improving air quality. The public will support clean-air efforts when they are framed in simple, economically sound terms. Bangkok’s story can serve as a model for air pollution control worldwide.