Message of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda: Law of Nature Webinar

November 13, 2021

A pleasant morning to you all. Thank you to the Angeles University Foundation for this chance to raise awareness on the challenges of air pollution and to strengthen our cooperation in implementing the Clean Air Act.  I recognize the important work that you are doing to help raise the air quality standards of our country.  Granting we would have been in a much worse situation without this law, the expected outcomes, however, are far from the reality we have today.

More than 20 years ago, I authored and helped enact Republic Act No. 8749 or the Philippine Clean Air Act.  My aspiration was that this law would pave the way in reversing the environmental damage, which decades of unchecked pollution has inflicted on our country.  However, despite the progress of the past years, there is more that needs to be done.

Air pollution has long been a problem for the Philippines. We are home to some of the world’s dirtiest air.  On some days you can see the thick haze that blankets Metro Manila, leaving our skyline barely visible. In 2018, a study by the World Health Organization said there were 45.3 air pollution-related deaths for every 100,000 people in the Philippines. This means we have the third highest deaths in the world from air pollution, after China and Mongolia. Another report has estimated that air pollution-related premature deaths in the Philippines have reached 11,000 to 27,000 in 2018 alone. These premature deaths are attributed to cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and lung cancer caused by exposure to the PM2.5 air pollution from fossil fuels and other sources.

Additionally, air pollution has a big impact on our country’s gross domestic product (GDP).  0.8 percent to 1.9 percent of GDP loss is due to air pollution. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), our negligence of air quality is causing more deaths and losses of about $87.6 billion annually.  In comparison, Philhealth’s budget under the National Expenditure Program for 2022 is around P80 billion, lower than these losses. If these costs are prevented through better air quality by even just half, then savings of up to P40 billion can be used for public health instead.

Despite these figures, Filipinos have become immune to our air’s bad quality. We tend to dismiss the problem and ignore it because we do not see its immediate impact. However, we need to recognize that air pollution is a silent killer.  Health, especially the health of children and vulnerable communities, economic costs ranging from health care costs to toxic cleanups, the loss of crops, and climate change are the consequences of air pollution. This is worsened by still unabated trash burning and the use of inefficient cookstoves using wood fuel, which further exposes children more closely to bad air.

I hope you see the urgency of the situation and the serious need to fully and effectively implement the Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act provides the policy framework for our country’s air quality management program. The law has also enabled the DENR to conduct two monitoring programs of air pollution from stationary and mobile sources: the “Bantay Tsimneya,” which monitors industrial emissions; and the “Bantay Tambutso,” for vehicular emissions.

The Clean Air Act also allows for air quality monitoring and the use of data and technologies, which can inform the most appropriate policies and solutions. With this law, our government could invest in strengthening capacities to measure and monitor air quality.  It provides for the preparation of an annual National Air Quality Status Report through monitoring stations. It also allowed for the designation of “airsheds.” These are geographical areas with similar weather or conditions and sources of air pollution affecting the interchange and diffusion of air pollution in the surrounding atmosphere within the entire country. To date, there are 98 air quality monitoring stations and 22 airsheds nationwide.

However, as we work to address air pollution, we also find that the tools which served us well in the past are becoming inefficient and outdated. The implementation of the Clean Air Act is a classic example.  Our country’s ambient air quality standards for harmful pollutants have not been updated since the implementation of the Clean Air Act more than 20 years ago. These standards now fail to meet the 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. 

In September this year, the WHO revised its recommended “safe levels” of air pollution. The Philippine Standard for Particulate Matter 2.5 or PM 2.5 is 25 micrograms per normal cubic meter.  The WHO Air Quality Standard is 5 micrograms per normal cubic meter. This means we allow 4 times more of PM 2.5 in our air, annually.  Also, using the 2021 Guidelines, we will miss by more than 200 percent what is deemed to be safe. On the other hand, if the WHO guidelines are met, the country’s annual air pollution-related deaths could be reduced by more than half while economic costs would reduce to a third.

Furthermore, the requirement to submit an annual report to Congress has not been complied with, as confirmed by the records of the House.  This is why I am urging the passage of a “Joint Resolution of Congress” to re-constitute the Congressional Oversight Committee on the Clean Air Act and to take cognizance of 2001 WHO Air Quality Guidelines. The joint oversight committee, which we had in previous Congresses, can work with think tanks and other expert groups on a comparative study to show whether the country is on track or not to beat air pollution and discover what else needs to be done. It is incumbent upon us to come together and take leadership in the effort to promote the health of the environment and of our people.

In addition to the implementation of the Clean Air Act, low-emission and low-carbon solutions for the transition to renewable energy are critical. We need to design and implement efficient and affordable public transportation systems, and facilitate electric vehicles and services that will reduce emissions. Industries should upgrade equipment to prevent pollutants from their manufacturing and agricultural processes. Sustainable agricultural mechanization can reduce pollutants from crop burning and provide additional benefits to smallholder farmers. At the level of homes, LGUs need to design systems that prevent trash burning and cooking that produces indoor smoke.  The government could develop appropriate incentives to support these transitions to align with stronger regulations.  

We must also strengthen cooperation among regions, cities and municipalities. Air pollution is a transboundary problem that no single jurisdiction can solve on its own. I encourage our local government units (LGUs) to participate and activate the airsheds they belong to.  This is the institutional system whereby they can come together to set up mechanisms to address this critical issue.  These may include the development of harmonized standards, enhanced data-sharing and information systems, and the exchange of best practices and collective action.   Right now, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the main agency with a clear budget and plan to address the air pollution problem.  With increased funding in 2022 under the Mandanas ruling, LGUs need to invest in monitoring air pollution in their cities or municipalities and they need to be assisted in their efforts to do so.  After collecting data from their air sensors, they should be able to craft recommendations to address air pollution and establish non-attainment areas where pollution remains unabated and activities that emit high levels should be restricted.

The government, educational institutions, and each citizen has a role to play.  We need to change the course of the discussion, from disregarding the quality of our air, towards seeing it as critical to our health, our economy and the environment. Think about your choices.  Use alternative modes of transport. Shift towards low-emitting vehicles.  Schools can educate the public about reducing the emissions and about inexpensive transportation choices. Businesses should seriously consider telecommuting or allowing their employees to work from home. We need large companies in the Philippines to change their mindset.

Other countries have been able to reverse their air pollution trends.  This is far from an impossible task.  We need more strategic enforcement effort to reach a critical mass of compliance of the implementation of the Clean Air Act and Ecological the Solid Waste Management Act, another law that I co-authored and principally sponsored, and their provisions against open burning.

Ignoring the problem does not make sense economically, ecologically and health-wise. 

Once again, I thank you for your commitment to cleaning our air but we need to show results, not activities and accomplishments. I look forward to continuing to work with you in support of our shared goal to reduce air pollution and provide clean, healthy air for all.

Thank you. Isang luntiang araw sa ating lahat.