Air pollution levels have rebounded in the National Capital Region with the return of fossil fuel reliant transport and industry, a new report released on World Bicycle Day last week by Greenpeace and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows.
The groups are calling for the immediate adoption of measures that would safeguard the air quality in cities and municipalities.
They noted that while the restriction of movement during the ECQ was largely responsible for the improved air quality in the past 10 weeks, stringent policies and better city and mobility planning will, moving forward after the pandemic, truly address Metro Manila’s transportation emissions problem and improve its air quality.
The Special Report on Managing Air Quality Beyond COVID-19 reveals that pollution levels in Metro Manila have been steadily increasing since the beginning of May, as industries restart and cities that have major connecting highways reportedly began seeing more vehicles on the road.
The report compiles data of two major air pollutants that are emitted from fossil fuel combustion: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
Analysis of these two pollutants from March 15 to May 15 this year shows an initial and dramatic drop in air pollutant concentrations at the beginning of the lockdown, and the gradual rebound during the MECQ.
With the metropolis shifting to looser restrictions on travel and other activities under the general community quarantine (GCQ) starting June 1, a return to smog and pollution levels prior to the ECQ may not be far behind.
“Air pollution doesn’t have to be an inescapable reality. The ECQ gave Filipino citizens a glimpse of what cities can be like with healthy, clean air. It also showed us that air pollution can be solved without sacrificing people’s access to mobility,” said Greenpeace campaigner Rhea Jane Pescador-Mallari.
“Moving forward, if the government is willing to use the opportunities and lessons learned from the pandemic and amplify it through policies and infrastructure, active mobility and micro mobility, as well as invest in efficient and safe mass public transport, then a return to the massive pollution levels before COVID-19 can be avoided.”
While the report looks at the entire Metro Manila, it examined closely the air quality in seven major cities in the metropolis — Makati, Pasig, Manila, Quezon, Marikina, San Juan, and Caloocan — to show that the rebound trends are consistent across the capital.
Detailed analysis shows that levels of NO2 and PM2.5 drastically diminished within the first two weeks of ECQ, with the exception of Caloocan. Quezon City and Manila saw the highest reductions of the six.
Although the metro’s overall air quality remained much improved compared to previous years, the air quality gains are now sliding back in all these cities. This change is expected as the country remains heavily reliant on highly polluting fossil fuel energy sources across all sectors.
NO2 and PM2.5 are linked to severe respiratory and cardiovascular health illnesses. Exposure to high levels of air pollution affects the body’s natural defenses against airborne viruses and increases vulnerability to COVID-19.
Short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon (a component of particulate matter) and methane, also accelerate global warming and glacial melt.
Air pollution further threatens food and water systems, reducing sunlight that reaches plants and crops and even affecting the trajectory and intensity of monsoons, which impact on our food producers and the country’s food security.
Greenpeace says that these sectors most impacted by the climate emergency are also the sectors hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic, thus the immediate need for green and just recovery measures.
The report recommends recovery efforts that prioritize clean energy sources, green transportation options, and enhanced micro mobility around localities, to keep air pollution at manageable levels and to reduce the compounding risks to human lives and livelihoods brought about by the health and climate crises.
“Our recommendations capitalize on opportunities for environmental, economic and social development in the short and long term, with efforts across local and national governments and the private sector. The ‘better normal’ must be imaginative, and better air quality must be a part of it.” said CREA analyst Isabella Suarez.
“As epicenters of growth, cities need to provide an environment that puts in high premium the health and wellness of both people and the planet. Solving air pollution, particularly from fossil fuels, is not only good for people’s health, it is also a solution to the climate crisis.
“At the local level, addressing air pollution is a key aspect of making cities livable and sustainable. At the national level, it means addressing the climate crisis while helping build climate resilient communities,” said Mallari.