Climate change strategy gives too much power to big corporations at the expense of local communities.
(Main photo: As part of its campaign to encourage the public to grow more trees for carbon credits, the Royal Forest Department is handing out tree saplings to people for free. Royal Forest Department)
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment's effort to fight climate change by using carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems as natural carbon sinks is getting a lot of flak.
The policy was announced at the Thailand Climate Action Conference last month. The ministry pointed to promising outcomes of the campaign to promote carbon credit trading in the forestry sector, as many big corporations have shown an interest in growing more forestland to gain carbon credits. However, activists warn that this climate strategy could backfire on efforts to mitigate climate change.
Apart from cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are the root cause of global warming, carbon forestry is another crucial component of Thailand's climate policies as it pursues the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and net-zero emissions by 2065, observers say.
Forest ecosystems can play a crucial role in the planet's carbon cycle, as forests worldwide absorb a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 annually, according to Global Forest Watch.
Because of the forests' efficiency as carbon sinks, protecting and regrowing forests is stressed as a crucial measure to address climate change.
"Reforestation is a major focus of Thailand's climate policies that is equally important as decarbonisation efforts, since the bigger and healthier the forest, the higher carbon sink and storage capacity that we will have," said Dr Phirun Saiyasitpanich, secretary-general of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning.
Dr Phirun said Thailand will need to grow more forestland and other green areas to cover 55% of the country by 2037 to enhance the carbon absorption capacity of the forestry sector to 120 million tonnes of CO2.
According to Thailand Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory System, as of 2016, the forestry sector had sequestered over 91 million tonnes of CO2.
Forest planters can now gain benefits from their contributions, as the amount of CO2 absorption by their plots will be counted as carbon credits that they can use as carbon offsets as they reduce their average carbon footprints or trade in carbon market.
The carbon credit exchange programme in the forestry sector has received overwhelming interest from the private sector, said Komsan Ruengritsarakul from the Community Forest Management Office of the Royal Forest Department.
"As of August, seven big companies have declared an intention to join schemes to regrow terrestrial forests on areas of 700,000 rai (112,000ha) with the Royal Forest Department," Mr Komsan said.
"However, many more have submitted applications to join the Marine and Coastal Resources Department's programme to plant mangrove forests over total areas of 550,000 rai (88,000ha), significantly exceeding the target of 45,000 rai."
Kiatchai Maitriwong, director of the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organisation (TGO), said the carbon economy as it is known also brings many opportunities for businesses: for instance, a new business model to provide reforestation services for customers who want to collect carbon credits.
"The carbon market is another important mechanism to push ahead with the country's climate mitigation efforts," he said.
"So, to strengthen the carbon market, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment with its partners is now improving the management of the carbon credit exchange, while additional incentives will also be introduced to attract more participants in carbon market trading."
According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, an area of 600,000 rai has been allocated for growing forests under the ministry's carbon forestry campaign this year.
However, Kritsada Boonchai, coordinator of Thai Climate Justice for All, said carbon forest promotion was simply another means to concentrate forestland and natural resource management in the hands of authorities and big corporations.
It will backfire on climate change mitigation by opening loopholes for the fossil fuel industry to greenwash their businesses and keep polluting the climate, he claimed.
"The government has always tried to monopolise the management of forestlands. From the early logging concessions to the recent forest reclamation campaign by the NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order], this new policy to encourage reforestation in return for carbon credits is just another tactic to swipe forest resources from the people," Mr Kritsada said.
Many big corporations in the energy and industry sector have joined the carbon forest policy, which shows that the fossil fuel industry is reluctant to move away from carbon-intensive operations that are warning.
Pachara Khamchamnan, from the Northern Peasant Federation (NPF), urged the state to respect the communal rights of forest folk and give them a bigger say in natural resources management.