What part will Thailand play in forging a low-carbon future? 

opinion March 14, 2017 01:00

By David King

I visited Thailand for the first time this month and enjoyed a warm welcome to this beautiful country.

As the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, I met ministers, officials, business people and students to explain the UK’s commitment to addressing climate change, and to hear your views. We all have an individual responsibility to act on climate change.

The UK has been at the forefront of global action to combat climate change. Several people asked me last week whether Brexit – or the new Administration in the US – would change this position. Not a jot. Our Foreign Office Minister Alok Sharma has said “Climate change is one of the important global issues that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office works on through diplomacy around the world. Following entry into force of the Paris Agreement, UK climate diplomacy is focused on ensuring its full implementation and effective follow up, and maximising the commercial opportunities for British business that a global transition to a low-carbon economy affords.”

Like Thailand, we face serious consequences, particularly from flooding, if we do not make every effort to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gasses which are warming the oceans and raising sea levels. We have already led the world in many climate initiatives such as:  

• The introduction of feed-in tariffs in 2003

• The 2008 Climate Change Act – a commitment to an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 regardless of what other countries do.  

• Establishment of the UK’s International Climate Change Fund with 4 billion pounds which has reached millions of people, with an additional 5.8 billion pounds pledged from 2016-2021. 

The UK has already reduced its emissions by 32 per cent compared with 1990 and will have reduced them by 57 per cent by 2032. This is enshrined in our legislation. 

I welcomed, during my meetings, Thailand’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20 per cent over the business-as-usual case by 2020, using a base year of 2005, and also a commitment to increase that to 25 per cent with access to international financial support. However I encourage Thailand to go further – as all countries should encourage each other. The risk to your country from climate change is particularly acute. The Asian Development Bank studies show that Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions due to its long coastlines, and heavy reliant on agriculture, forestry and natural resources. About 3.9 million people in Thailand are projected to experience water stress by 2050, and the rice yield is projected to decline 50 per cent by 2100. 

We must transform world economies away from fossil fuels towards a more sustainable low carbon future. Research and innovation will have a critical role in this transformation. Advances in renewable energy, smart energy storage, smart grids, and improved energy efficiency will help us meet the targets we signed up to in Paris in 2015 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Green finance, such as through the City of London, is increasingly accessible. There is already more investment in renewable energy globally than there is in conventional energy, and renewable energy is already commercially competitive in most parts of the world

Use of coal is a particular challenge to this transformation, and one that we must address. No matter what technology is used, there is no such thing as ‘clean’ coal. The cleanest forms of coal exploitation technology available today generate about ten times the amount of carbon equivalent generated by renewable energy technologies. 

As a scientist I am only too aware of the damage coal wreaks on the environment in terms of emissions – and on human health, particularly children and the elderly. There are alternatives and during my visit we discussed ways that Thailand can make the transition to more low carbon options: greater use of rooftop solar would be one option. Even in the cloudy UK rooftop solar is now competitive.  

On a global level, those that seek to build new coal fired power stations may struggle to find the required finance for fear of investors being left with stranded assets as alternative sources of energy become the norm. Even China’s coal-fired power stations are now only running at 35 per cent capacity. For the UK’s part, the government has announced that it will close all of our coal power stations by 2025 And our emissions from coal fell an estimated 50 per cent just last year. 

The future direction is clear: decarbonisation. The target: to reduce greenhouse gases fast enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change from hitting Thailand, the UK, and all of us, particularly the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. The opportunity for a low carbon future is immense. The question that remains is: what part are you going to play? 

Part of this article was originally 

published in Science magazine.

Sir David King is Emeritus Professor in Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and serves as the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change.