Environmental group renews calls for clean air a year into COVID-19 quarantine in PH

PRESS RELEASE | 15 March 2021

       Sustainability think-tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) on Monday called on the government anew for concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality in the Philippines, noting that the alarming lack of measures to address air pollution has allowed it to spike back to pre-COVID levels.

       The concern was raised on the anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown in Metro Manila when the government suspended public transportation and non-essential travel to curb the spread of the virus–a measure later expanded to the whole of Luzon and selected areas in Visayas and Mindanao as the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

       “Amid social and economic shocks experienced around this time last year, many saw the clear skies of Metro Manila and other cities as a silver lining. COVID-19 appeared to have given nature a break from decades of greenhouse gas emissions, and we hoped that the improvement in air quality during the first few weeks of lockdown had shown the government how desperate Filipinos are for cleaner air. However, all we’re seeing a year later is a return to normal,” said Avril De Torres, CEED’s Research, Policy, and Law Program Head.

       The slow-down of economic activities especially in urban centers  resulted in the improvement of air quality, something that Filipinos noticed as photos of clearer skies in cities and previously unseen views in Metro Manila of landscapes like the Sierra Madre went viral.

       “We and many others cautioned that the cleaner air in the middle of a global crisis is merely a glimpse. We urged the DENR to use it as an opportunity to ensure air quality monitoring systems are calibrated and well-functioning, and raise our air quality and emission standards, which are one of the lowest in the world. We also called on the DOE to learn from the troubles encountered with coal and other fossil fuels during ECQ and fast-track the advancement of renewable technologies instead. These having been unheeded, we are concerned but not surprised that air quality in the country is seriously deteriorating,” she said.

       Environmental groups were already warning the Philippine government about the decrease in air quality following the easing of quarantine restrictions mid last year, and by March 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global CO2 pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels and threatens to surpass them due to the rush for economic recovery.

       “The coal and other fossil fuels industries remain the biggest culprit in polluting the air we breathe and spewing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute further to the climate crisis. The lack of a clear policy against coal plants allows for thousands of premature deaths each year in the country. Meanwhile, the absence of a just transition framework in the transport sector hinders the shift to cleaner and democratic transportation systems that commuters and transport workers alike are able to support,” said De Torres.

       According to CEED, with the world already in a pandemic, polluted air need not be an additional threat to the health of people and the environment.

       “The people deserve a new normal, one that is cleaner, greener, and better than the old. Clean air that Filipinos can breathe freely must be part of this,” said de Torres.