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Address air pollution to help PH recovery

/ 05:01 AM March 28, 2021

Communities around the world are getting much-needed hope with the rollout of vaccines one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, the Philippine government must not let its guard down in terms of ensuring people’s health, particularly since another hazard remains unsolved: air pollution.

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During the onset of the first enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the metro temporarily experienced better air quality. Metro Manila citizens enjoyed a view of clear skies, so much so that people were in awe of the view of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges from the capital. The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) issued a statement affirming lower levels of dangerous pollutants, such as particulate matter 10 (PM10) and particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), in areas such as Marikina, Las Piñas, Parañaque, and Muntinlupa.

But as the quarantine was eased, gas-powered vehicles slowly returned to the roads, and with them, dirty and unhealthy air quality. In June 2020, when Metro Manila eased into modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ), Greenpeace reported that the air pollution levels in the city, particularly that of PM2.5 pollutants, had steadily crept back up.

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The clear skies and the view of the mountain range from Manila were only glimpses of a better normal. It was an indirect result of the government’s response to the pandemic, not a response to the worsening air pollution in the country.

Prior to the pandemic, our health was already being threatened by air pollution. According to a report published by Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, bad air quality caused by pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels in the transport and energy sector in the Philippines is responsible for an estimated 27,000 premature deaths, 1.9 percent GDP loss, and 4.4 million work absences annually.

The government’s efforts to address air pollution is lacking. It is made worse by the fact that we have been breathing blindly: There aren’t enough monitoring stations, especially in provinces that host polluting coal-fired power plants such as Bataan, Zambales, and Batangas.

To protect Filipinos from being further affected by air pollution, the country needs to increase air pollution monitoring capabilities in major highways, hospitals, schools, and transport terminals, as well as near heavily polluting fossil fuel power plants. Air quality monitoring by the DENR should be improved. The department currently operates only around 80 PM10 monitors and 55 PM2.5 monitors across the country. Bataan, which houses major megawatt-coal plants, has only one PM2.5 monitor for the whole province.

Air quality standards set by the Clean Air Act of 1999 should be immediately updated. Since the law was instituted 22 years ago, these standards were never updated despite provisions in the law that mandate a review of the standards every two years. This means we are using an outdated set of standards that have allowed the operation of unhealthy coal power plants and other air polluting facilities. It is imperative that the DENR accelerate its efforts to update air pollution standards, given that exposure to air pollution is a major risk factor in respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.

More importantly, reducing air pollution will not only help address the ongoing health and COVID-19 crisis, but also the ongoing climate crisis. Aside from being major sources of air pollution, the transport and energy sectors are the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the Philippines and globally.

Addressing air pollution must be part of our economic recovery programs. Better air quality for Filipinos will mean a better normal for current and future generations—freedom from air pollution, and better health resilience against future pandemics and the climate crisis.

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Khevin Yu ([email protected]) is the energy transition campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.

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TAGS: Air pollution, Commentary, economic recovery, Khevin Yu
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