Article / Urban Development
Published: 19.01.2024

PM2.5 has chronically plagued Thai society, and its gravity seems to never stop intensifying, threatening the wellbeing of all Thais, notably in the domains of health, economy, and inequalities. 

The worsened air pollution keeps us from outdoor workouts. Inhaling PM2.5 also has a detrimental impact on our respiratory system, lungs, or even the brain. Not to mention outdoor economic activities that come to a halt due to air pollution, or increased socio-economic disparities that reveal themselves amidst the search for protection against air pollution. Who can conveniently afford an air purifier, a single anti-pollution mask even?

All of us want the authorities, policymakers, and stakeholders to make PM2.5 pollution vanish into thin air, but the reality is unfortunately not that simple. PM2.5 pollution is by nature a wicked problem. Unable to pinpoint the roots of the problems, no definitive solutions that work, extremely unique, or even ‘symptomatic’ of larger problems — such are the characteristics of PM2.5 pollution. 

Why is PM2.5 pollution a wicked problem? Let’s think about its origins. Is it 1) car smog 2) construction 3) the industrial sector 4) wildfire or 5) controlled burning? The answers are all of the options given. They are variables in the equation of smog generation, and when causal variables contain multitudes, this leads us to the next question: where should we start? How to prioritise these variables? A simpler answer would be “start with the worst one.” But the reality is not that easy at all. 

Air pollution is the by-product of interconnected issues. These issues are so deeply intertwined with one another that it is impossible to pick them apart. At the same time, we can start with different intervention points, such as promoting innovation that increases crop value without reliance on controlled burning, using punitive measures against factories that exceed emissions limits, incentivising the private sector to adopt sustainable energy, etc. This is why air pollution is a wicked problem. Policymakers and the authorities should use the wicked problem framework to avoid using a ‘simple’ solution to achieve quick wins, and to recognise the complexity of both the problem and problem-solving process. 

The more wicked the problem is, the more policymakers need to adopt system thinking. The first step to managing PM2.5 pollution is to do stakeholder mapping — pinpointing the affected groups, the beneficiaries, negatively impacted stakeholders, and responsible players. Thongchai Panswad and Sirima Panyametheekul (2020) identify a list of stakeholders in PM2.5 pollution as follows:

  • Sufferers – this category includes youth, elderly adults, and others whose health and economic activities are negatively affected by air pollution. 
  • Polluter – those who release toxic microparticles (e.g. transportation, controlled burning,  or energy generation).
  • Rectifier/regulator/law enforcement – this involves the authorities and emissions regulators such as the Local Administrative Organizations, the police, or the judiciary. 
  • Incentivisers – the authorities with power to incentivise emissions reduction by different means (e.g. tax reduction for businesses that adopt renewable energy). 
  • Researchers – those who produce and expand knowledge about emissions and air quality improvement. 
  • Policymakers – Those who coordinate between government agencies and concerned sectors, transforming recommendations into policy that truly addresses the problem. 
  • The public – every member of the society who has an obligation in reducing emissions and pushing for clean air. 

We can see that so many people are involved in the matter of PM2.5 pollution. Solving this problem requires policymakers and the authorities to approach different correlated groups, and to use a system thinking framework as well as adopt a more holistic perspective. We need to ensure the sustainability of our solutions. We cannot simply patch up one hole after another. This pollution crisis is a problem that clearly shapes the lives of all Thai people. Warding it off is not a dream beyond our reach, but we have to wake up and finally face the reality with wide eyes open. Come to terms with the wickedness of the problem, and work side by side in a sustainable way. 

Department of Environmental Engineering, Chulalongkorn University

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