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A silent killer in our midst

Without minimizing the horrors of the pandemic, there is a far deadlier killer enveloping much of the world. The total deaths due to COVID-19 recently breached 6 million people across the globe. In contrast, according to a recent study by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health, more than 9 million people die annually due to air and water pollution (Fuller and co-writers, 2022). This fatality rate is almost the same as the number of people dying from smoking yearly. In addition, the number of deaths is more than those who succumb due to malnutrition, alcohol, drugs, and HIV combined. Of direct relevance to us, more than 90 percent of the mortality occurs in low-income and middle-income countries.

In the Philippines, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (2021) estimated that about 66,000 Filipinos die annually because of air pollution. To put this in perspective, about 60,000 Filipinos have perished from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. In addition, the cost of air pollution is about P4.5 trillion annually, equivalent to 23 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019. On the other hand, water pollution has been blamed for about 6,000 deaths annually. Our lakes and rivers, especially close to Metro Manila, are dying from tons of chemicals and wastes being dumped into them daily.

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The solutions to addressing air and water pollution are well-known. In the Philippines, we have the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts providing a solid foundation for action. Yet, why is it that worldwide, deaths due to pollution have increased by two-thirds in the past years? According to the Lancet Commission, only a few low-income and middle-income countries have prioritized addressing pollution and made real progress. In other words, the walk has not been consistent with the talk.

More broadly, pollution is linked with two other significant global challenges of our time, climate change, and biodiversity loss. For example, fossil fuels worsen air pollution while leading to higher emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Conversely, shifting to renewable energy reduces ambient air pollution while mitigating GHGs in the atmosphere. These interconnections highlight the possibility of pursuing win-win solutions that address two or more global and local challenges we face. While there are trade-offs, synergies present tantalizing opportunities in our pursuit of sustainable development.

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One significant implication of the foregoing is the necessity of adopting systems or a holistic perspective in crafting policies and programs. Too often, decision-makers and implementors fall prey to a reductionist approach that blurs the interlinkages between human and natural systems.

If we are to realize our lofty aspirations for our people, we must widen our perspectives geographically and even temporally.

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Rodel Lasco is one of the authors of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. He is the executive director of the OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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