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Director of the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute (GSEI), gave the following address at a training session to develop leadership according to the working principles of King Rama IX.
Sustainable development for Thailand in the global context
Sustainable development for Thailand in the global context

Sustainable development for Thailand in the global context

Hopes for the sustainable development of the world’s countries now focus on achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since 2015, the SDGs have formed the core of the global development agenda, following the end of the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in that year.

Work towards the MDGs, 8 in number, began in 2000 and continued for 15 years. Thailand achieved all 8 MDGs, even surpassing some of the targets. The MDGs mainly concerned basic human needs, such as food, education, gender equality, medications and health care. The 17 SDGs have expanded the world’s development agenda to include the environment, ecosystems, forests, biological diversity, peace and international relations. The SDG campaign is set to run for another 15-year period, to 2030.

The origin of 17 SDGs dates from about 40 years ago. In June of 1972, at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the UN put environmental issues on the global agenda for the first time, due in part to the environmental impacts of the use of chemicals for the “Green Revolution” to increase agricultural production. In December, as one of the conference outcomes, the UN established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Twenty years later in June 1992, the UN followed up with the Conference on the Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro, or the “Earth Summit”, which called for sustainable development in the “Rio Declaration”. Thailand joined the campaign and passed its own national environment law in the same year, the Enhancement and Conservation of the National Environmental Quality Act of BE 2535. Three years later, the Uruguay Round under the framework of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) culminated in the founding of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The world turned to economic and trade liberalization. At that time it was said that sustainable development was dead. Trade regulations overpowered environmental rules until there were three crises during 2007 and 2008 when the world had to turn to SDGs.

In 2007 and 2008 speculation by hedge funds caused the crude oil price to exceed 100 US dollars per barrel. That, in combination with droughts in grain-producing countries and increasing use of biofuels in developed countries, led to three crises: the so-called “Hamburger Crisis” of rising food prices, an energy crisis and a financial crisis. Political and economic turmoil followed in many of the world’s poor as well as developed countries. The UN and international institutions doubted that liberalizing of trade would guarantee sustainable development.

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Fourth Assessment Report, which confirmed that climate change resulted from human activities. At that time, most scientists believed that global warming had nothing to do with natural climatic cycles but resulted from human activities. Their conviction and growing global awareness led to calls for solutions. The fifth and latest assessment (AR5) was issued between 2013 and 2014 and continued to confirm that human activities including the emission of greenhouse gases have caused global warming.

The three crises and AR5 spurred the UN to propose a change to its member countries to a sustainability mindset for their social and economic development plans. In recent years the concept of “Green Economy” thus evolved to address the causes of the three crises and related issues. Thailand came up with its green strategies in accordance with the global trend. In 2012 the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was convened on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Rio Summit. At “Rio+20”, there was an attempt to promote Green Economy as a global policy, but that met considerable opposition, with academics and politicians of some countries pointing out that Green Economy was not a solution. However, economic development was generally accepted as being unsustainable as evinced by global warming. In 1992 countries had agreed to reduce the levels of atmospheric carbon (or “greenhouse gases), but 20 years later levels had increased and the average temperature had risen by 0.9 degrees Celsius in comparison with “pre-industrial levels” (before the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700s). Another important issue was an attempt to upgrade UNEP as a global environmental organization. The United States blocked the attempt because it did not want any organization to check the WTO.

Aware that it was impossible to change the form of economic activities, the UN turned to SDGs. It opted to force changes with 17 goals instead of pushing for a change of a method or process of development. The global community agreed that it had to change from unsustainable development to sustainable options. With agreement on the goals, countries could choose their own ways to achieve them within 15 years, by 2030. Thailand has chosen to follow sufficiency economy philosophy (SEP) of HM the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX as its path to reach the 17 goals. That is how “SEP for SDGs” came about.

The UN General Assembly adopted SDGs in September 2015. In December representatives of the world’s countries agreed that their governments should ratify a new pact concerning global warming known as the Paris Agreement. They shared the strong conviction that the world’s industrial and economic habits would have to change.

The 17 SDGs were categorized into the groups of “5 Ps”: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. Sustainable development requires a balanced relationship among the 17 goals. Past development was unsustainable because it focused on prosperity and thus affected people, planet and others. A goal of Thailand is to increase its forest areas to 40% of its territory, but the increase must not adversely affect people’s lives or the economy. Economic prosperity that will not leave anyone behind is another goal of Thailand.

Thailand has been working toward such development for a long time. A global report issued in mid-2016, the “SDG Index & Dashboards”, showed how far individual countries were from achieving success. Out of 149 countries, Thailand was among the upper half, ranking 61st. At the top were Scandinavian countries. Thailand will have to accomplish much more in the next 15 years. Among ASEAN countries, Thailand was second only to Singapore, but was quite far behind the latter, which placed 19th overall.

Sustainable development in the Thai context

Since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s return from the UN General Assembly in September 2015, Thailand has been working for sustainable development faster than expected in many areas.

Thailand will have its 20-year sustainable development strategies in accordance with SDGs. The strategies will cover the 15-year agenda of SDGs and will shield the sustainable development of the country from political changes. The new constitution requires that the country have national strategies and national budgets designed to serve them. However, national strategies may be adjusted to suit changing factors. The fully inclusive process to formulate the strategies was set to extend between July 2017 and July 2018.

Another element on the Thai road to SDGs is the “Thailand 4.0” model. The country must move beyond its agricultural, industrial and technological eras to foster an innovative, “smart” economy with an inclusive society that works toward sustainability. It must now head for its 4.0 phase of development which refers to a digital economy, improved quality of life for all and sustainable use of environmental resources. The 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan (spanning the years 2017 through 2021) supports the 20-year national strategies and compliance with the Paris Agreement. Thailand 4.0 is the means to translate plans into actions. Other elements to achieve all the SDGs are political reconciliation-building proposals and the passage of 318 laws.

Regarding its efforts towards SDGs, the government has formed a committee for sustainable development, headed by the prime minister. A work agenda has been delegated to governmental organizations and there are key performance indicators. In the past year Thailand has come up with 30 priority targets that it will meet within five years to conform with SDG targets. The committee for sustainable development approved the priority list and resolved that SEP would be applied to reach the targets. Unable to do that alone, the government will join forces with the private sector and the civil sector to achieve them.

In the private sector, about 50 Thai companies have initiated their own projects for sustainable development. They include Coca-Cola and Bangchak Petroleum. To focus on achieving the SDGs, many companies have stopped corporate social responsibility activities that seemed to make little difference. They have turned either to adjust their production processes or emphasize their core business. Concerned parties have tried to encourage companies instead to promote collaboration with the government sector and the civil sector.

Sufficiency economy and sustainable development

In a systems analysis perspective, the three principles of SEP (moderation, reasonableness and prudence) form a process to facilitate decision-making, with one’s own knowledge and morality as the matrix. The issues or activities for decision-making are inputs into the process, while the outputs are the resolution(s) of those concerns. The outcomes contribute to a balanced and sustainable economy, society, culture and environment.

In applying SEP in the case of global warming, Thailand can be seen to be enhancing moderation in the balance of global affairs. Thailand intends to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases by 20 to 25% over a 10-year period, between 2020 and 2030. Such a reduction still allows for growth in the national economy.

Regarding reasonableness, Thailand must play its part in addressing global crises. The global community intends to contain the increase in the average global temperature at two degrees Celsius within 2100. So far the temperature has risen by about one degree. Scientific research has shown that reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases by only developed countries is not enough and developing countries must also cut emissions That is why Thailand is committed to decreasing its emission of greenhouse gases. That is the academic justification. There is also a legal reason: the new Paris Agreement that requires all countries to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Regarding prudence, Thailand prepares to deal with impacts and risks of economic and environmental changes. It is shifting to a low-carbon economy to maintain its export competitiveness.

SEP and the working principles of King Rama IX can be applied to achieve all 17 SDGs. SEP is a concept that works for achieving the SDGs. The 20-year national strategies will incorporate SEP into departmental programs to achieve the SDGs. The 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan, amendments to 318 laws, and master plans will make the strategies actionable.

The Thai government’s roadmap to SDGs consists of three parts: a strategic approach, action projects, and follow-up activities. The strategic part will deal with ways to apply SEP to achieve national targets. The project part will cover action plans with implementation timeframes. The follow-up part can apply key performance indicators of the UN, and the SEP-based indicators that organizations have developed or are developing, in assessing Thailand’s results and showing whether further action is required for success in achieving the 17 SDGs.

Here you have, in a nutshell, Thailand’s medium-term outlook for national development.