On Sunday, May 22nd, Bangkok, Thailand held its first gubernatorial elections in nine years against a backdrop of recurring poor air quality and rising citizen health concerns. Election results released on Monday, May 23rd showed independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt had won the office (1).
Delayed by the 2014 coup d'état, 31 office-seekers were vying for the Bangkok governor’s post, a position that doubles as the city’s mayor. As governor, Sittipunt has some authority to set air pollution mitigation policy for the sprawling city with a metropolitan population of 14.6 million people.
Other leading candidates’ platforms proposed numerous solutions for improving the city’s poor air quality, but air quality activists like Greenpeace are concerned that stated plans – including Sittpunt’s – didn’t go far enough in addressing the root causes of Bangkok’s air pollution.
Long-standing poor air quality in Bangkok
Too often, Bangkok residents struggle to enjoy breathable air year-round. According to IQAir’s 2021 World Air Quality Report, Bangkok had an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 20.0 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), an incremental improvement from 20.6 μg/m3 in 2020. Bangkok’s average annual PM2.5 concentration – particulate pollution under 2.5 microns in diameter linked to a wide range of serious health problems – is four times the WHO guideline of 5 μg/m3.
However, the air quality in Bangkok was much more of a health hazard during January and February 2021, rising to an average monthly PM2.5 concentration of 42.3 μg/m3 and 45.2 μg/m3 for January and February respectively. PM2.5 levels exceeded the WHO guideline by over nine times during those months.
“The trend in Thailand of slightly decreasing PM2.5 concentrations is encouraging, however, the magnitude of these PM2.5 levels continues to pose a serious health risk.” said Dr. Christi Chester Schroeder, Air Quality Science Manager at IQAir.
Bangkok air pollution causes
Much of Thailand's air pollution is concentrated in the northwest, where agricultural burns and forest fires can have a strong seasonal impact on air quality. However, smoke from those fires and nearer agricultural burns can also reach as far as Bangkok, conflating existing source control issues like industrial and vehicular traffic emissions.
But Bangkok also struggles with poor urban planning, a problem none of the candidates addressed directly. “Like other cities around the world, Bangkok also has a heat island phenomenon caused by unplanned and uncontrolled high buildings,” said Alliya Moun-ob, Greenpeace Thailand Energy Transition Coordinator. “The heat island can cause atmospheric inversion and bad air flow in the area.
“It’s the reason why the concentration of PM2.5 is much higher from November through February in Bangkok.”
Candidates pledged Bangkok air pollution change
Many of the leading candidates had included air quality improvement in their platforms.
In his platform, newly-elected Governor Chadchart Sittipunt cited a plan to create a dust-free “Clean Air area,” increase green spaces, improve waste management, encourage electric vehicles, and address the city’s PM2.5 root causes.
Outgoing Governor Aswin Kwanmuang also declared his intention to increase green spaces and improve waste management. He placed fifth in the race.
Five candidates – including Chadchart Sittipunt, Deputy Governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul, second-place candidate Suchatvee Suwansawat, Weerachai Laoruangwattana, and Supachai Tantikom – pledged to expand the number of air quality monitors in the city.
Alliya voiced concerns prior to the vote that after the elections have passed and when seasons change, the urgency to change will be diminished. “The public's interest in air pollution in Bangkok depends on the PM2.5 concentration. In April, the PM2.5 concentration spiked due to the weather conditions, causing the public and the candidates to take an interest in this issue. Many candidates propose very nice policies but after this dust period, it is still unknown whether the new governor will do what he/she promised or not.
“We still need to work hard to make the public aware that even in other seasons, including the wet season, PM2.5 is still in the air and can cause chronic health issues.”
Schroeder agrees that awareness is important. “Raising awareness of the real health risks posed by breathing poor quality air is crucial to the well-being of people around the world. Unfortunately, it often becomes a topic only raised when the consequences occur in real time and cannot be ignored.”
Thailand's government operates the largest air quality monitoring network in Southeast Asia, with stations in 113 cities. However, none of the cities – including Bangkok – met the WHO's PM2.5 guideline in 2021.
Acknowledging the air quality problem – both nationally and locally – has been a hurdle to tackling air pollution. Incoming Governor Sittipunt will have to take a multi-prong approach to air pollution reduction by eliminating air pollution sources, prioritizing a more sustainable city plan, and raising air quality awareness throughout the year.