An Environmental Warrior

I look at micro issues and the successes we have had in Australia, and see that in many areas success is also very achievable in this region.

By | Tue 25 Sep 2012

Environmental lawyer Matthew Baird, and his partner, textile designer Chris Chun, arrived in Chiang Mai for a six month sabbatical from Sydney, Australia, eighteen months ago and it doesn’t look like they are going to be leaving any time soon. Having spent over 25 years in local and national politics in Australia and the last decade on big-issues such as climate change on a national level, Baird not only is a past President of the National Environmental Law Association (NSW Division), current Deputy-Chair of the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific’s standing committee on environmental law, but he is also the Chair of Environment and Planning Law Group, Law Council of Australia – in fact, his CV is a virtual tome.

With six months on their hands, Chun accepted an invitation to get involved with the Chiang Mai Creative City initiative, volunteering as a judge for the Chiang Mai Design Awards. Baird went along to some meetings and eventually his background as an environmental lawyer emerged, and with such a heady pedigree, he was soon being rolled out to meet all manner of people working in related fields. He made connections with Earth Rights International and is now busy redrafting environmental impact assessment law for Cambodia as well as training NGOs in Burma. Baird’s half year out in the tropics slowly turned into a shift in career direction.

Citylife: Why are you an environmental lawyer?

Baird: By the age of 14 I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I grew up in Hunters Hill, a 1920s suburb in Sydney, and really appreciated the preserved old heritage in the area. What happens before defines where we are and it is important to protect and preserve culture, heritage and by extension the natural environment. This is how I initially got into politics. When I finished law school I worked for a judge planning environmental matters. I always had the idea that there is more to life than the accumulation of material possessions and the older I get the deeper green I go as the more concerned I become.

Citylife: Tell us about your career in Australia.

Baird: In Australia my focus was litigation; my clients can sue governments or I can represent governments to sue developers. The rule of law is very important. The last few years focusing on climate change have been extraordinary, coming to the realisation that without action we are facing a significant global catastrophe. There is no longer any debate that the earth is warming or that climate is changing; the only issues are how significant this change is and to what extent is it caused by humans. So, issues I worked with ranged from energy efficiency, use of resources in general, opportunities for tech transfers to reduce pollution – moving away from coal to new forms of energy – dealing with climate change adaptation such as flood management, food security and making sure that crops can stand extremes. In Australia the court mandates that projects need to do environmental assessments for the next 20, even 50 years, this means that right from the beginning someone is thinking far ahead. It is a good start.

Citylife: So how does that differ from your experiences here in Thailand?

Baird: The pressure in Asian and developing countries are so much greater. I remember my first attendance at a Law Association for Asia and the Pacific conference in Sri Lanka in 1993 when I learned of environmental lawyers who were being tortured and killed. My suffering is when I am not paid enough! Preserving old buildings and such are irrelevant issues when faced with lack of clean water and air or safe food. If you look at the whole Mekong basin, there are huge populations wanting a better life, this means more energy is required, more consumption, water, food, resources, the great challenge is meeting those needs while persuading people to do it in a more sustainable way. The key is to try to break pattern between growth and consumption. For instance, air-conditioning: do you need it on 24 hours a day at 18 degrees? How do you make the incentives to change people’s behaviour? The first thing is pricing, making sure that the actual price tag for your energy includes the full cost of any environmental impact – a natural, and fair, deterrent. This is an immediate problem for Thailand where its lack of oil reserves means that it imports energy. Vietnam has adopted nuclear power, but if they factor in the cost of a possible cleanup like Fukushima, for instance, it is obvious that nuclear energy is not economical.

Citylife: What are you getting involved in now?

Baird: Right now I am getting very involved with the issues regarding the damming of the Mekong. Right at the bottom at the delta in Vietnam, you have got amazing issues of how the fresh water delta will give way to a salt water delta as sea water rises, combine that with development pressures and the increase of dams affecting the already changing water flow from the melting Himalayas, nasty weather storms will become frequent problems. As coastal water temperature rises and storms pick up warmer waters, they grow in intensity. I think that this could have been one of the reasons Katrina was so devastating.

Citylife: What are the big problems you are looking into in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region?

Baird: There are the dams. Cambodia derives something like 80-90% of its protein from fish in the Mekong. But with the Xayaburi dam about to be built in Laos, which aims at providing up to 95% of its energy to Thailand, the livelihood of millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese downstream will be affected along with the fragile ecology. This is what I am talking about earlier when talking about the full cost of energy. The cost of building this dam to the people of Cambodia and Vietnam should definitely be deferred to Thailand and therefore the cost of energy generated should rise much higher. If 75% of Cambodia’s fish stock in Tonle Sap will be destroyed, then Thailand should pay Cambodia in kind. Of course this isn’t going to happen even though a Thai bank is funding this dam, a Thai construction company is building it, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) will be buying its energy, and it will be built in Laos because this project would not pass Thailand’s environmental impact assessment. Thailand has a strong enough judiciary and civil society to mobilise protest, and so it simply builds in Laos.

Citylife: Is this all a bit depressing for you?

Baird (laughs): I am ridiculously optimistic. I look at micro issues and the successes we have had in Australia, and see that in many areas success is also very achievable in this region. For instance the annual burning. The short term solution is to use tools such as Google Earth to offer prizes or incentives to communities that don’t burn and to shame or penalise those that do. The medium term is to educate people and find solutions to the waste such as bio waste plants, turning waste to energy, and the long term solution is to change people’s behaviour by offering them incentives to continue to make brave choices. The subsidies can slowly be withdrawn and eventually turned into penalties when they don’t comply. With every year you can lower the acceptable level to constantly try to reduce the amount of waste burnt. It costs more in the short term, but long term costs are avoided. Ultimately you change the idea from the acceptable to the unacceptable. But I admit that there are still issues such as transparency, corruption and accountability to face and often people go for the more destructive and easier options. But they don’t have to.

Citylife: So, what is stoping us?

Baird: Thailand has a strong civil society which monitors government, and the environmental impact assessment law here is decent with a court that is able to accept challenges. But while judges are already receiving training in environmental law, so that they can understand that the environment should not be sacrificed for jobs or the economy, the enforcement compliance is a problem. This is true worldwide, not just in Thailand. From my short time here my observation is that the Thai culture is to expect the government to solve these problems when in fact it should be a shared solution, bring in outside help – I have found that no country has all the answers, so let’s utilise the many examples of the world’s best practices and learn from the mistakes and successes of others – many countries are not very receptive to this. There are many available options which do not have to be prescriptive because you still have to adapt to local conditions and expectations. A friend told me that China recently brought in over 1,000 foreign experts to assist them in the next stage of development.

It is also very frustrating when I think that every single world religion essentially argues for us to take care of the planet; yet we don’t. Why do we have to fight so hard against corruption and greed in a Buddhist country, when there are two behaviours specifically rejected in Buddhism?

Citylife: Any thoughts on Chiang Mai’s future in environmental terms?

Baird: I see Chiang Mai as having enormous potential to improve the quality of life and to cope with the pressures which will arise when Bangkok continues to suffer from flooding. Part of the start is to explore ideas and solutions in a creative way, and there are many people and groups, such as the Chiang Mai Creative City initiative, which are doing this. The key is in building dialogue then taking the next step. But also in understanding that dialogue needs to be with the broader community, that is the challenge.

It may take a generation for all these changes to manifest…the question is whether we have a generation in which to do it?

Matthew Baird will be holding a conference here in Chiang Mai next year for around 80 regional policy makers and lawyers, from the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific. The focus will be on trying to identify suggestions as to how to promote creative cities but also how to promote sustainability on a government level. Citylife will bring you details on this event closer to the date.