Quezon City, 10 November 2021Twenty years after the passage of the Philippine Clean Air Act, a new report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) entitled “Aiming Higher: Benchmarking the Philippine Clean Air Act” pegged the yearly bill for neglecting air quality at $87.6 billion. Globally, experts found that polluted air has contributed to 15% more COVID-19 deaths and illnesses on top of other medical impacts, highlighting the growing health and economic impact of air pollution and the risk of non-implementation of the country’s Clean Air Act.

“Air quality is not an abstract issue. Air pollution costs the Philippines Php 4.5 trillion every year, which in 2019 represented 23% of our GDP,” said Isabella Suarez, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and one of the report’s co-authors. “Neglecting air pollution comes with a heavy bill in the form of increased healthcare and welfare costs, as well as loss of labor and economic productivity.”

In the most detailed analysis for the Philippines to date, the report found that air pollution in the country is responsible for 66,000 premature deaths every year. “If this does not spell out how urgent the situation is, it’s hard to imagine what else can spur the government to truly implement the country’s Clean Air Act. Our findings show the degree to which Filipino’s long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of developing illnesses such as asthma, lung cancer and stroke, as well as comorbidities to COVID-19,” said Vince Carlo Garcia, a research analyst with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities and a co-author of the report. 

In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its recommended “safe levels” of air pollution based on growing scientific evidence that air pollution is more dangerous to human health than previously estimated. According to the report, if the WHO guidelines were met, the country’s annual air pollution-related deaths could be reduced by more than half while economic costs would reduce to a third.

Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, principal author of the Clean Air Act, expressed frustration over the executive’s inaction. Legarda said “Millions of premature deaths around the world have been attributed to poor air quality and millions more are exposed to higher levels of pollution from a growing number of pollution sources. Some of the pollutants also contribute to climate change.” Legarda said it was unacceptable that the country is missing “by more than 200 percent what is deemed to be safe” according to the WHO’s new guidelines. Legarda said “The adverse impacts of climate change and poor air quality do not recognize political colors. 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.”  To speed up implementation of the law, Legarda urged the passage of a “Joint Resolution of Congress… to constitute the Congressional Oversight Committee on the Clean Air Act.”  

According to Engr. Jundy del Soccorro of DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), “The first step to finding a solution is acknowledging the problem, [which is why] we need all the data and expertise from academe and government agencies.”

The EMB official cited initiatives the agency is pursuing in line with the Clean Air Act, including a project to gather data from industrial sources in real-time. Del Soccorro said a total of 70 firms in the Philippines already have existing continuous emissions monitoring systems, 35 percent of which are now connected to their Air Quality Network Operation Center. The project aims to reach 100 percent completion by 2022. Suarez noted, however “the initiative can reach its full potential if more stringent emission standards are enacted so emissions from these sources are kept at a minimum.”

The Aim Higher report showed sources of mobile, stationary, and area emissions have increased since the year 2000 but the policies that control emissions from each source have not kept up. The authors emphasized the full implementation of the Clean Air Act should be prioritized, especially as many of the solutions to air pollution have climate co-benefits.

“Meeting the fully protective WHO Guidelines will take time but every improvement in air quality matters so we need to ensure that air pollution and emissions reductions are tied to well-defined, time-bound targets and milestones,” said Suarez.

Among the DENR-EMB’s wish list for tackling air pollution decisively are the improved provision of budgetary support to improve the agency’s capacity to monitor outdoor and source pollution, and the prioritization of targeted initiatives with air pollution reduction benefits under the Build Build Build program. 

The report also comes on the heels of growing research on the impact of air pollution and COVID-19. Garcia added “the COVID-19 pandemic brings more urgency to curbing air pollution after recent studies have shown that past exposure to poor air quality has exacerbated COVID-19 mortality rates by 15% worldwide. Another study asserts an increase of just 1 microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an eight percent increase in COVID-19 deaths. Our neglect of air quality means we remain in an emergency setting.”

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) is an independent research organisation focused on revealing the trends, causes, and health impacts, as well as the solutions to air pollution.

The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) is an international climate and energy policy think tank group based in Quezon City promoting climate resilience and low carbon development.

AC Dimatatac, ICSC: media@icsc.ngo, +63 998 546 9788,   +63 917 149 5649
Isabella Suarez, CREA: isabella@energyandcleanair.org  + 63 917 3146663