September 28, 2022
The sources of air pollution and the climate crisis are one and the same. Fossil fuel combustion in power, transport, industry, and agriculture release not just carbon dioxide, but also a cocktail of pollutants that are incredibly harmful to human health, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and particulates. On top of the urgent need to address climate change, actions to mitigate emissions from carbon dioxide-emitting sources and sectors also have the near-term benefits of improving air quality.
Air quality in the Philippines has generally improved in the last decade. However, there is a growing scientific understanding that air pollution is more dangerous to human health than originally estimated, and that even low levels of pollution can be very detrimental to our health.
In a study we released last year, we found that approximately 66,000 deaths a year occur because of exposure to poor air quality—equivalent to each Filipino smoking one (95% interval: 0.6 to 1.4) cigarette per day. This takes a real toll on the economy because if people are dealing with lung cancer, asthma, stroke, etc. It affects their lives and livelihoods. They’re having to spend on medication or hospitalization and taking sick days that they can’t afford to. Air pollution is incredibly disruptive and something that we should not just accept.
When we reviewed the Philippine Clean Air Act last year, we found there was a real need to update many of its provisions as well as strengthen implementation overall.
The science around the negative impacts of air pollution and the technologies available to minimize it or avoid it completely has seriously evolved in the last 20 years.
Take the recommended “safe levels” of air pollution exposure set by the World Health Organization, which was revised last year. PM2.5, the most dangerous pollutant because of its minuscule size and ability to go deep into the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled, has an allowable annual average concentration of 25 µg/Ncm in our Ambient Air Quality Guidelines. That’s five times higher than the 2021 WHO Guidelines.
We need to control pollution from the source, and fortunately many of those coincide with climate mitigation action. Reducing our dependence on coal and improving public transport and active mobility to have fewer cars on the road are some key solutions, given the pollution contributions of the power and transport sector.
On the air pollution front, one very important and responsive action is for government to improve our air pollution monitoring network and publish it in real-time. Right now, air quality monitoring devices are concentrated in Metro Manila but there are so many major cities and industrial areas across the country. Such data can not only inform citizens of the state of air quality but also inform scientific and strategic interventions.
Addressing transport and supporting active mobility in cities is a big one—and there’s the dual reason of not just trying to reduce pollution from cars, trucks, and motorcycles but also protecting and allowing cyclists and commuters to be mobile and to be safer doing it. Because most of all the combustion engines, people are breathing all the pollution roadside.
Clean power is another solution that I believe has so many cross-sectoral benefits. Imagine if we were building solar and wind farms next to communities rather than subjecting them to dust and ash from coal, oil, or gas plants.
Addressing air pollution will require systemic and sectoral reforms, but ultimately clean air is a human right.
On the solutions side, I think it’s incredibly important for the government to be collaborating with academia, civil society, and the private sector in crafting solutions. It will be very important for all these sectors to consider the impact of air pollution in economic decision-making, as well as climate action.
For citizens, I think it’s incredibly important that they are made aware of what kind of air they’re breathing, and the government needs to provide such transparency.