Phil Roeland

An inconvenient truth

Bangkok environmental issues


I watched the Academy Award-winning movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ with Al Gore on DVD the other day. Although I was bit skeptical at first about the much-hyped tree-hugging flick, originally released in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised and didn’t get bored for a minute – quite on the contrary.

The film is based on the slide show American ex-vice President Al Gore has been giving around the globe since he lost his bid for the US presidency in 2000. Although he had been an environmental advocate long before that traumatic experience, it seems that quitting politics has only fuelled his determination to make the whole world aware of global warming.

Instead of spoiling the plot for potential viewers, I can only do what Al asked me to do: encourage others to watch his movie. You won’t get bored and might even learn a bit more about the dangers of global warming.

Although I personally think there are more and other dangers threatening our planet’s future and our very own survival - such as pollution in general, overpopulation, nuclear warfare, etc. – global warming is certainly one of them and people should be aware of its potentially destructive nature.

Even if it’s too late to stop the Earth from warming up – after all, we have been burning fossil fuels for a long time as if there’s no tomorrow – viewers will get a better understanding of the phenomenon and hopefully change their lifestyles and attitudes. Even if it doesn’t stop global warming, at least it will reduce pollution and the destruction of natural resources.

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Although little seems to be done to combat global warming and pollution in Thailand, it’s not that nobody cares. In her last birthday speech, Queen Sirikit herself urged the Thai population and government to take the utmost care of the environment. She was especially worried about the worsening pollution in the South, the illegal logging of pristine forests nationwide by unscrupulous and greedy individuals and the sad condition of the once majestic Chao Praya River, now on its way to becoming an open sewer due to uncontrolled dumping of waste water and dangerous chemicals by numerous factories.

As if the environment only matters when the Queen says so, a day later several government agencies and officials vowed to combat illegal logging, pollution and encroachment of national parks and reserves. As if they shouldn’t have been doing this all along - bunch of hypocritical sycophants.

Her husband, King Bumibon, wholeheartedly agreed and pointed the finger accusingly at large-scale logging operations – both legal and illegal – as the prime culprit for the recurring flash floods in the North of the country. Although the highly venerated King and the Queen have often iterated their concern over the environment, both government agencies in charge of enforcing the law and potential perpetrators seem to quickly forget their promises, the latter often even colluding with members of the former in order to get rich quickly and ensure the destruction of the environment. Let’s just hope the Queen’s wishes come true and that these mafia-style tycoons redeem themselves (‘Fat chance! ‘ is what cynical readers now say or think).

Bangkok had its own initiative to reduce global warming a few months ago. Governor Apirak called on everyone to switch off non-essential lights from 7 to 7.15 pm one weekday evening. This small-scale, almost insignificant campaign supposedly decreased the amount of CO2 or carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by a staggering 143 tonnes.

I must admit that I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to believing news reports about reducing global warming, especially when they mention these mind-blowing figures. I always wonder where and how they get their numbers. Does turning off the lights for a mere 15 minutes in a big city really cause such an important reduction? I mean, 143 tonnes is not a small amount.

For a non-scientist like me, it's hard to compare something as esoteric as CO2 in the atmosphere to anything tangible, but if these carbon dioxide particles were solid matter, they'd fill about seven 20-tonne trucks. Now that’s a huge amount of black dust I you ask me. By the way, I’ve no clue whatsoever as to what colour CO2 is supposed to be, but I have this idea that it’s black, ugly and dangerous (I’m sure some science geek will email me to say it’s really transparent or white). So if this insignificant urban gesture does that much good, why don’t we turn off the lights a bit more often?

Similarly, I guess it would be an equally good idea to replace all the ancient buses that still run all around the city. As you may know, I'm referring to the probably more than 40-year old, smoke-belching monsters that are still omnipresent in modern-day Bangkok. They are predominantly red (big buses) and green (minibuses), although other colours exist. Keeping them from the streets or replacing them with new buses would definitely have an enormously positive effect on the air quality in Bangkok and at the same time combat global warming. If there are hundreds of billions of baht available to build new Skytrain and underground routes (an initiative I totally support), then surely there must be some money left to buy new buses? Why wait any longer?

Also in Bangkok, a solar-powered petrol station opened its doors on August 1 in the centre of Bangkok. Three hundred solar panels mounted on its roof provide electricity for the fuel pumps. Although it’s a very good start, all the hype and fanfare accompanying the opening seemed to have overlooked a few more sobering facts. First, the solar panels can only generate 10 per cent of the electricity the petrol station needs – the remainder being provided by the regular electricity grid. Second, the company has no plans to open more solar-operated stations, given the relatively high installation and operating costs. Finally, I don’t think that many motorists care. Anyway, it’s a very good initiative. Let’s hope the price of photovoltaic cells comes down soon and urge the government to give some incentives to green companies.

To end with more upbeat news concerning our endangered Mother Earth, I have noticed that many of the newer passenger vans operating in and around Bangkok run on NGV (natural gas for vehicles), thereby joining the huge fleet of taxis that ply the streets and expressways of the capital. Have business operators become aware that saving energy and reducing CO2 emissions is vital for the long-term survival of the planet? Maybe so, although the lower cost of NGV – which sells at about a third of the price of diesel - could be the determining factor for choosing to go green on the road. Don’t let it spoil the fun.

Should you wonder what I have done personally to keep the Earth cool, I can announce that I am the proud owner of two sets of rechargeable batteries and that I haven’t used the lift in my apartment building since January this year. Although the initial price of rechargeable batteries is significantly higher than disposables, they make an excellent and environmental-friendly investment in the long run. Also, Thailand doesn’t seem to have a system in place to pick up or recycle dangerous waste such as batteries, so they used ones probably just end up in a landfill. As for running up and down six flights of stairs every day, I just consider it free exercise.

That’s it for this month. If you have any tips or suggestions yourself, don’t hesitate to send them to me. Just to remind you, if you haven’t done so already, don’t forget to rent the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ movie and watch it. Ninety minutes of guaranteed entertainment. If the video store isn’t too far from your house (this probably means less than 5 km for most people and less than 200m for Thais), you could walk or cycle. Burning fat apparently doesn’t contribute to global warming.




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