Better Environmental Education
We could start with better environmental education. In Israel, water is extremely scarce, and they are taught the importance of it, beginning at 4 years old. Since they start so young the lessons stay with them for a lifetime. The result is that the average Israeli uses almost 40% less water daily than the average Thai. The government also constantly reminds them of the value of water with advertising campaigns that remind citizens to “Save Water Save Life”, and to “Only Use What You Need”.
Phuket could adopt a similar strategy with the environment by teaching children school, and reminding adults to reduce their litter; placing advertisements on billboards and social media about the importance of recycling, composting, reducing our waste and not littering on beaches or burning trash.
Create Walking Spaces
For several years Phuket Town has been applying to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, similar to Penang’s George Town. It has a cultural heritage made up of Thai and Sino-Portuguese architecture, is decorated with colourful street art, and is filled with amazing restaurants and food stalls. What it lacks is accessibility; parking is difficult to find and the sidewalks are narrow and cramped.
One solution is to close a few of the streets to cars and motorbikes and turn them into walking and biking areas. This is already done every Sunday on Thalang Rd with the Lard Yai Market. We could turn this into a full weekend and slowly add in a few days of the week.
Pre-COVID-19 several major cities including San Francisco, New York, Boston, London, Mexico City, Barcelona, Madrid, Oslo, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Milan, Athens and Rome were already restricting cars in the central business districts to fight climate change, reduce air pollution and make the area more liveable. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, as it has highlighted our basic human need to have open outdoor spaces.
The ban on cars has resulted in cleaner air, reduced pedestrian deaths, lower obesity rates, less stress-related diseases and additional space for housing, parks, trees, plants biking and walking paths.
Furthermore, business in the city centres has improved, in the areas where the streets are closed. For example, London saw an increase in retail spending of 30% at shops and restaurants. Studies show that walkable streets are more economically productive per acre for several reasons; they are safer for pedestrians so people make more frequent trips; there is more space; people can move at a leisurely space so they will stop to investigate shops; and you can plant trees, to make the area cooler and more inviting.
The Blue Zones Projects has taken a similar approach in over a dozen cities in the United States, making them more liveable, by adding bike paths, improving and adding parks and trees, and making them more pedestrian-friendly. The results? A 14% reduction in obesity, a 30% reduction in smoking, lower healthcare costs, less employee absenteeism and a generally happier community. So, reducing car usage not only has environmental benefits, but economic and health benefits as well.
Better Public Transportation
Even in low season, the roads on Phuket can become congested, but pre-pandemic peak, during high season, they could be mind-numbingly maddening. The past solutions have been to widen or build more roads and tunnels, but a well-known and scientifically validated observation, known as Jevon’s Paradox, tells us that the more capacity you build on roads, the more traffic it produces. The reason is that when people find it easier to drive, they will drive more often, thus creating an endless need to build and widen roads.
A future solution that is still in the planning stage is the B40-billion light rail system, but not only is the plan ludicrously expensive, it is also inflexible; once the tracks are laid there is no changing the routes. A better solution would be to create a fleet of affordable medium-sized electric buses that could cover the island. This would both reduce traffic and improve air quality while saving billions of baht.
More Solar and Wind
Thailand gets 60% of its energy from natural gas, and imports more than half of its energy resources, although that’s slowly starting to change with the hydro-solar project that opened in Ubon Ratchathani last April.
Phuket is blessed with an almost limitless supply of sun and wind. One way that we could capitalise on it is by adding solar panels and vertical wind turbines to the rooftops of big-box retail stores like Macro, Ikea and Big C. These rooftops have the advantage of not taking up any new space, being flat and almost always exposed to the sun or wind, and could substantially reduce the island’s carbon emissions.
We can also combine the existing agricultural industry on the island with solar panels to create agrivoltaic farms. This is when you place the panels above the crops, which protects them from over-exposure to direct sunlight while reducing moisture loss. In return, the crops cool the solar panels, making them run more efficiently. The farmer benefits by improving their crop yield, and getting an extra income stream from generating energy.
This article is Part 1 of a two-part special report. Read Part 2 next week. Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.