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Thailand’s energy transition might be inevitable, but equality and justice are not

Some stand to lose out in the transition away from fossil fuels unless policies that address inequality and injustice are put in place.

Michael Boyland / Published on 28 August 2018

Mae Moh Power Station, Thailand. Photo: Watanyou Intachai/Flickr

As domestic fossil fuel reserves near depletion, Thailand has embarked on an ambitious journey to expand renewables to meet consumption demand. But there is a very real risk that the transition will disrupt workers and communities reliant on unsustainable industries and energy sources, as well as fail to address existing gendered socio-economic inequalities and leave behind the marginalized and the disadvantaged.

Progress is slow and some high barriers will take time to scale, such as the country’s highly-centralized power structures, resistance to phasing out coal, and a lack of disaggregated employment data. But a lot more can be done for equality and justice without compromising the government’s priority of national energy security. SEI Asia and the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University hosted a recent multi-stakeholder workshop, where participants outlined some suggestions to ensure Thailand’s transition is just and equal for all.

Barriers to achieving equality

In pursuit of energy security, economic prosperity and well-being, Thailand has long promoted energy development. Historically, this promotion focused first on fossil fuel production and then, as oil and natural gas reserves dwindled, on increasing energy imports from neighbouring ASEAN Member States. However, with growing concerns over national security, part of the country’s latest strategy is to exploit largely untapped renewable energy generation capacities, particularly solar PV and wind power. By 2036, Thailand aims to use renewable energy for 30% of its final energy consumption, and likely has the capacity to reach at least 37%.

Although full electrification and energy access has been achieved, the long-term trajectory of energy development in Thailand is uncertain. As the transition gathers steam, there exists several challenges and barriers to achieving justice and equality.

1. Energy governance is complex, uncoordinated and inefficient

Multiple government agencies have roles and responsibilities that overlap, such as in determining tariffs and promoting energy efficiency. As such, coordination and transaction costs are high, while energy sector markets are seen to lack transparency and accountability. According to Puree Sirasoontorn, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University, “the current lack of coordination and poor implementation is inhibiting the transition and means renewable energy targets are unlikely to be achieved.”

2. Powerful actors resist the transition

Key actors who hold significant decision-making power around the direction of energy development are resistant to aspects of the transition. Specifically, there has been strong push-back against the proposed removal of fossil fuel subsidies, as traditional energy suppliers continue to successfully lobby to maintain the “status quo”. State-owned enterprises (SOE) are tasked with promoting energy conservation yet are unlikely to do so when their primary interest is electricity sales and profits. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the largest SOE, is protesting the government’s recent decision to suspend the planned construction of a coal power plant in Krabi, southern Thailand. Further, EGAT’s long-term power purchase agreements price out smaller power producers, leaving little to no room for small renewable energy producers to engage in the government’s purchase scheme.

3. Disaggregated data on energy sector employment is significantly lacking

Jobs that are going to be affected by the energy transition span multiple industries, including mining and quarrying; electricity, gas and water supply; and construction. Across all of these industries, male employment outweighs female employment by at least a ratio of 3:1. But there are limited publicly available data on the number of jobs specifically in the energy or power sectors, or in sub-sectors such as fossil fuels, renewables and energy efficiency. And the data that does is exist is often not disaggregated by age and gender. However, there are some indications of gender inequality in employment and decision-making in the energy and power generation sectors. For instance, men dominate leadership roles: at the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, just two of 15 current executives are women, and at EGAT the number is just three of 44.

Access to employment data is vital to understanding and monitoring justice and equality in the transition, particularly as job losses are a major concern for many actors and employees in SOEs and fossil fuel-dependent businesses. The perception that a transition automatically means job losses is making policy-makers cautious to act in terms of explicit just transition policies. Enacting effective policies will be nearly impossible without baseline employment data that can be tracked throughout the transition.

How to move towards a more just and equal transition

Despite these significant challenges, there are options and opportunities to move towards a more just and equal transition in Thailand. At the recent workshop hosted by SEI Asia and the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University, participants proposed a number of principles and actions:

  • Development of a more balanced power and decision-making structure, which includes input and participation from fossil-fuel-dependent employers and local communities in just transition policy development
  • Decentralization of renewable energy planning, incentives and tariff support, to enable local communities to be more proactive in the transition
  • Long-term planning for the transition that is adaptive and can anticipate changing market conditions and policy priorities
  • Upholding labour standards, as it indicates that jobs are not a commodity; a just transition must ensure dignity, especially in terms of living conditions and wages
  • National-level assessment of green employment potential that considers the needs and capacities of all genders and social groups
  • Collection and analysis of energy-industry-specific employment data, disaggregated by energy type, gender, and other social indicators of inequality
  • The integration of the gender equality principles of the National Economic and Social Development Plan, which calls for greater access to education and employment opportunities, and for improving attitudes toward the role of women within organizations and society.

These suggestions are just a starting point for action that needs to occur at multiple entry points. Efforts must be centered around the pressing need to address the inequalities that have affected the historically under-represented, marginalized and disadvantaged.

To limit global climate change to 2°C warming, energy transitions are needed the world over. But these transitions come with few guarantees that nobody will be left behind. Thailand has an opportunity to help lead the way in ensuring a just and equal transition that benefits all.

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