by Mavic Conde | Sept 22, 2023| Published by The Inkline | READ THE STORY HERE

At one o’clock in the afternoon, Joshua Agar parked along Quezon Avenue, Quezon City, a long stretch of road in the most populous city in the Philippines.

He was cycling from his hometown in Cavite, about 16 miles southwest of his destination – the University of the Philippines Diliman, where he teaches in the College of Engineering.

The temperature that day reached 35 degrees Celsius, with a humidity level of 63 percent, a level of temperature that discourages many Filipinos from cycling, leaving many to take public transport or private vehicles.

“Aside from the country’s hot climate, pollution — including from vehicle emissions — can contribute to breathing and thermal discomfort,” he said.

Despite the majority of cyclists not being completely aware of its benefits, he emphasises that air quality should be one of their top concerns.

Starting point

In the Philippines, while the Clean Air Act has been passed into law, Agar believes it needs sharper teeth for enforcement in order to identify pollution sources, particularly from vehicles. According to him, a thorough monitoring, evaluation, and mitigation system is required, but it always begins with monitoring.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2023 report shows how long-term emission inventory and monitoring in South Korea — particularly in Seoul, Incheon, and Giyonggi — has encouraged studies on trends, concentration sources, and health impacts, which have then been used to inform policies and the public.

According to the study, these Korean cities reduced air pollution by 19 percent between 2005 and 2020, primarily through conventional measures, such as industrial process emission standards, emission standards for road vehicles, vehicle inspection and maintenance, and dust control. Next-level initiatives were implemented as well, such as not burning agricultural waste in open areas and replacing gas cooking and heating appliances with electric devices.

Launch of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2023 in Seoul, South Korea. [Photo from The Inkline]

Meanwhile, Quezon City (QC), the Philippines’ largest and densest city, with a population of three million, has currently one reference air quality monitoring equipment, approved by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and 20 low-cost, non-reference tools. These have allowed the local government to establish baseline data since 2021 while also gleaning data from weather conditions as it invested in six weather stations to measure the air quality as well.

The organization C40, a network of mayors around the world that are working together to address the climate crisis, released a report saying that QC’s road transport sector accounts for around 69 percent of its total PM2.5 concentration, the most harmful particulate matter that can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and even in some cases death.

Its sources are emissions from cars, trucks, and industrial facilities. Unfortunately, cloth masks are insufficient for filtering out these contaminants.

To further monitor the air quality of the city, QC’s Environmental Protection and Waste Management Department deploys a team that conducts daily vehicle exhaust capacity tests to gauge emissions and track pollutants, but 2017 data revealed that only 7 percent of the examined vehicles passed the test.

Dr Jose Edgardo Gomez Jr., an academic who specialised in urban planning before joining the QC local administration, said it’s difficult for people outside of the scientific community to take initiatives towards achieving high air quality.

“It is much easier to get them excited about parks, green open spaces where children can play, and about being healthy and not having to go to the hospital in your old age. I think that’s something that local governments know how to do very well,” he said in a panel during the Climate and Clean Air Conference (CCA) in Bangkok in late May.

Milag San Jose-Ballesteros, Regional Director of C40, who also panelled at one of the CCAC sessions, agreed: “Setting local targets would be key. You have your data, but what’s your ambition?”

r Jose Edgardo Gomez Jr., an academic who specialised in urban planning before joining the QC local administration, said it’s difficult for people outside of the scientific community to take initiatives towards achieving high air quality. [Photo from the Inkline]

Setting the infrastructure

The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) in a statement urges cities “to step up and set a positive example by providing inclusive, cleaner transport options for hardworking Filipinos.”

According to ICSC, “the latest data from the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) clearly suggests that a growing community of cyclists is using our roads as everyday transport.” Several highways in Metro Manila have had bike lanes built during the pandemic. In QC, buffer zones, if not bollards, can be found in between bike and car lanes to protect both cyclists and car drivers.

Unfortunately, a number of local governments have revealed that these are merely temporary fixes, as evidenced by the removal of bike lanes and bollards, as well as the now cancelled proposal to mix motorcyclists and cyclists through shared lanes on EDSA, the most congested highway in Metro Manila – both of which have provoked condemnation from mobility advocates.

Agar noticed that the majority of cyclists in QC are commuters who are exposed to uncomfortable routes due to traffic congestion if not overpasses and flyovers. He states that he avoids them by taking detours and that the trees along the University of the Philippines’ roads provide for pleasant rides.

Considering this ongoing infrastructure problem, especially the absence of cleaner transport options and the hazardous road conditions, Agar said people would continue to prefer being inside a closed vehicle, instead of choosing to walk or cycle.

Infrastructure should be able to promote outdoor air quality, he added.

Climate action

Investing in air quality data is also a form of climate action, as the sources of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are often the same.

According to the UNEP’s study, “in many cases, GHGs and air pollutants are emitted from the same sources,” while also noting that a major source sector, for instance, transport “has multiple [contributors] including industry.”

The latter illustrates the boundless nature of air pollution, which has been a scourge for city dwellers, particularly women from poor communities, costing them seven million premature global deaths and 8.1 trillion in economic loss per year, equal to 6.1 percent of global GDP in recent years.

To show this interconnectedness, the report zooms in on short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as methane, a greenhouse gas emitted by agricultural waste and industrial facility leaks.

Black carbon, a major component of PM2.5, is produced by partial combustion of coal, diesel, and biomass fuel for transportation, among other things. And tropospheric ozone, which is methane-driven ground-level ozone pollution that creates smog.

SLCPs are non-carbon emissions that have a short lifetime in the atmosphere but have a greater warming effect and are linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as damage to crops.

Despite this, SLCPs are not in the Paris Agenda and have not been comprehensively included in country emissions inventories and nationally determined contributions (NDCs), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What the Philippines can learn from South Korea’s case

Even with the strides in climate action of South Korea, its air quality is still below national and international standards. The UNEP 2023 study also suggests that South Korea can raise its goal by focusing on both GHGs and air pollutants while accounting for the intersectionality of impacts.

Given the disparities in air pollution exposure across age, gender, and socioeconomic status, the report suggests establishing vulnerability groups based on jobs, dwellings, and means of transportation. This way, the country can have more targeted policies that work similarly to its existing measures, such as financial assistance for small businesses to pay for technological emission controls, or for early scrapping of rundown diesel vehicles and reduced car mileage.

“Integrated solutions can save time, money and lives,” Eric Zusman, member of the science advisory panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a global voluntary network of governments, businesses, civil society organisations and academies that advances air pollution mitigation actions for urban health and development.

According to John Leo Algo, Living Laudato Si’ Philippines lead climate campaigner and who has a graduate study in air quality dynamics, the South Korea case study can provide lessons for national and local governments, especially in Asia, where 37 out of 40 most polluted cities in the world in 2020 are found.

That said, he emphasised the need to also invest in data management and capacity building in both the public and private sectors.

The core issue in lack of access to air quality data goes beyond technology, according to Neth Daño, researcher, and Asia Director for ETC Group which analyses the impact of emerging technologies and corporate tactics on biodiversity, agriculture, and human rights.

“Haven’t we seen too many non-functioning air quality measurement equipment along EDSA over the years? What a waste of taxpayer’s money.”

“Technological solution (i.e., air quality measurement) is not a magic wand, but a tool to inform decisions and policies and for the citizens to use as a basis for advocacy for better policies and direct action,” Daño said.

She stresses that access to information should be linked to access to justice, which can take the form of redress when poor air quality is caused by violations or non-enforcement of air pollution policies, and must eventually lead to stronger enforcement of existing laws, if not the adoption of stricter regulations.

“Countries can do a lot by working on their national legislations. Only 31 countries had legislation on transboundary pollution and 66 parties are signatories to conventions on long-range trans air pollution,” Renee Gift, UNEP’s legal officer, said during the CCAC conference.

ICSC’s Director for Urban Development Maria Golda Hilario reminds us that decarbonisation only becomes beneficial when we pursue sustainable transport not only to reduce the country’s carbon footprint, but also because we want the most reliable, accessible, and comfortable experience for the public.

Photo by Wirestock on iStock