air pollution

As dire as vog: Car-fueled smog in Metro Manila shows gaps in air quality, transport policies

Pia Ranada

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As dire as vog: Car-fueled smog in Metro Manila shows gaps in air quality, transport policies

GLOOMY SKIES. Smog from vehicles turns this skyline in Quezon City gray on September 22, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Smog from cars turns Metro Manila skylines gray on both World Car-Free Day on September 22 and International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies on September 7

MANILA, Philippines – When the thick, gray fog in Metro Manila thought to be vog from Taal Volcano emissions was found to have been smog from vehicular pollution, many residents were more alarmed than reassured.

Environmental and sustainable transport groups articulated these sentiments days after.

“It is a supreme irony that on September 22, World Car-Free Day, Metro Manila and nearby provinces were shrouded in smog caused mainly by vehicle emissions,” said 39 organizations of cyclists, climate activists, youths, persons with disabilities, and commuters in a statement on Tuesday, September 26.

The joint statement was signed by groups like the Move As One Coalition, National Confederation of Transport Workers Union, Motorists for Sustainable Transport, Bicycle Friendly Philippines, Esteban Cycling Community, Youth for Better Baseco, Kasali Tayo, and the National Federation of Labor, among others.

“The sad reality in terms of environmental awareness is that people don’t act unless they see it,” Greenpeace campaigner Rhea Jane Pescador-Mallari told Rappler on Tuesday.

“With air pollution, we normally become cautious when we see this smog, but air pollutants are at high levels even without the smog,” she added.

While the September 21 and 22 smog made a bigger splash because it coincided with the Taal Volcano vog in Luzon provinces, an earlier smog incident in Makati had also made the rounds on social media. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) later on confirmed the smog incident observed from September 7 to 9.

Ironically, September 7 was the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies – a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly to promote international cooperation on improving air quality.

The DENR has long cited data that 80% of dirty air in Metro Manila comes from vehicles, while the remaining 20% is due to emissions from factories, construction sites, and garbage burning.

For groups alarmed about the September smog, the headline-making phenomenon highlighted the urgent need for government action to reduce the use of cars and promote less polluting forms of mobility.

Their main calls:

  • Ensure the 2024 government budget, currently being debated in the House of Representatives and Senate, gives enough support for clean transport and protecting air quality
  • Ensure sufficient funds for programs in regulating vehicular emissions
  • Promote mass transportation as opposed to private vehicle use
  • Encourage sustainable mobility options like biking and walking

“As the national budget undergoes scrutiny, we the undersigned call on Congress, the DOTr, DPWH, DENR, and MMDA to pass and support a people-centric 2024 national budget so that the 94% of Filipinos who do not own four-wheeled motor vehicles enjoy their right to breathe clean air, as stated in Republic Act 8749 (the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999),” said the groups.

They flagged problems in the proposed 2024 national budget, like the following:

  • A tighter budget of P500 million for the Department of Transportation to build bike and pedestrian infrastructure – down from P2 billion in 2022 and P750 million in 2023
  • Non-existence of a budget for the jeepney modernization program, a key effort of the government to lessen polluting emissions from traditional jeepneys while ensuring jeepney drivers don’t lose income
  • The failure of the proposed budget to reflect the declaration in the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028 that “pedestrians and cyclists will be accorded highest priority in the hierarchy of road users”
  • The failure of the proposed budget to address the needs of the majority of Filipinos who won’t benefit from car-centric policies. Citing a Social Weather Stations survey, they pointed out that 94% of Filipinos do not own cars; more Filipino households, one out of three, own bicycles; and 87% believe the government should prioritize bicycle use, public transportation, and pedestrians over private car users
Smog can spur action

Smog has been an unfortunate but distinct feature of many rapidly growing cities around the world. In the most famous smog incidents in history, thermal inversion also played a role. This was the case for the “Great Smog” in London in 1952, which was estimated to have killed 12,000 people. There is the 1966 smog in New York City, said to have killed around 160 people. More recently, the Beijing smog in 2013 was also caused by thermal inversion, a phenomenon common in the Chinese capital because of its geography.

Thermal inversion is when a layer of hot air traps cooler air closer to the ground. The phenomenon has led to air pollution incidents because pollutants get trapped with the cooler air and get more and more concentrated the longer the thermal inversion lasts.

The less pollutant particles spewed in the air by vehicles, industrial facilities, and construction activities, the less likely thermal inversion would lead to smog.

All three crises spurred government action and public awareness about the dangers of air pollution – whether from burning huge quantities of coal to stay warm (London) or uncontrolled industrial and vehicular emissions (Beijing).

Beijing, for instance, came up with a five-year plan that same year that included incentives for residents to buy electric cars instead of fossil fuel cars, diverting trucks away from heavily populated areas, investing in more green spaces and parks, regulating the use of coal-fired boilers in houses, and encouraging bicycle use.

Will the much smaller smog incidents in Metro Manila catalyze enough public and private sector response to avert an even bigger disaster?

Gaps in air quality monitoring

But there’s another possible budget gap related to air pollution.

If you ask the DENR, funds are sorely lacking even for the basic program of monitoring air quality in Metro Manila.

As the smog covered parts of the megacity, the DENR could not even provide the public with a full picture of the phenomenon because a majority of its air quality monitoring stations were offline.

A screenshot from DENR-EMB’s Air Quality Monitoring website

Based on the Real-time Ambient Air Quality Monitoring website of the DENR for Metro Manila, 10 out of 17 air quality monitoring stations were described as “offline” or non-existent (“no station”) for detecting microscopic pollutants less than 10 µm in diameter (Particulate Matter 10 or PM10).

The situation was worse for detecting smaller and thus more dangerous pollutants, those less than 2.5 µm in diameter (PM2.5). Thirteen out of 17 monitoring stations were also either offline or labeled as “no station.”

These labels meant the stations were unable to transmit air quality information to the DENR’s system for the city where the monitoring station is located. There is supposed to be a monitoring station for each of the 16 cities and one town in Metro Manila.

This information would have been crucial for Metro Manila residents during the days of smog.

The DENR admitted the state of their air quality monitoring stations last Saturday, September 23, a day after the most recent smog incident.

“The station models get outdated very fast. The others need maintenance, some of its parts no longer work, those parts are hard to replace. There are many factors,” said Undersecretary Juan Miguel Cuna in a DZRH interview.

Some local governments, like Quezon City and Las Piñas, have their own ways of measuring air quality, even using multiple sources to get a more comprehensive picture. But the DENR’s website would have put all Metro Manila’s cities and town in one spot, allowing ordinary citizens to check on air pollution whenever they want and compare their area with other areas.

The DENR’s air quality monitoring system is run by its Environmental Management Bureau (EMB).

EMB Director Gilbert Gonzales told ABS-CBN’s Raphael Bosano that they have been requesting for more funds for the system for the past “5 to 6 years” but are never given enough.

“Unfortunately, we are not given sufficient budget, so we are just maintaining what we have. But of course, over time, they don’t function efficiently, so we just describe it as ‘offline,'” he said on Monday, September 25.

He estimated that setting up a new air quality monitoring station would cost P10 million to P15 million each. Calibrating – or ensuring a monitoring station can accurately measure air quality – and maintenance would cost P400,000 to P500,000 each.

The EMB got P1.2 billion this year for its “Environmental Regulations and Pollution Control Program,” in the General Appropriations Act or the national budget for 2023.

Under this, the NCR Regional Office got P20.4 million. Some P357.5 million went to the “implementation of clean air regulations.”

On top of that, it was given a P35-million Air Quality Management Fund, a fund it gets every year from fines and damages awarded to the government by the Pollution Adjudication Board, proceeds of licenses and permits issued, emission fees, and donations. 

The EMB’s real-time Metro Manila air quality monitoring portal was launched in 2015 and was supposed to make hourly updates on air quality accessible to the public. 

Back then, the stations each cost P3 million and were able to measure pollution within two kilometers of their locations. The website allowed journalists, for example, to write about air pollution on New Year’s Day to measure the impact of the fireworks displays the night before.

But in 2016, the procurement of more air quality monitoring stations was halted after groups filed a complaint against the late former environment secretary Gina Lopez over the allegedly “defective” air monitoring machines.

The Air Board Company, one of those who filed the complaint, claimed the DENR ignored findings that the machines were outdated, difficult to calibrate properly, and produced inaccurate data.

Lopez had said she launched an investigation and suspended procurement of more machines “until [the DENR is] sure the technology is accurate and appropriate.”

Learning from the pandemic

Whether it’s a budget shortage or the wrong use of funds, there is a gap in monitoring air quality in Metro Manila, one of the most congested urban areas in the world.

“The lack of air quality monitoring sensors working in the metropolis and the inadequate real-time reporting of the results to the public make people complacent about the issue,” said Greenpeace’s Mallari.

But the benefits of a less car-centric society were already made apparent to the megacity’s residents not so long ago. Mallari hearkened back to the COVID-19 lockdown, when cleaner air was among the silver lining brought about by limitations on movement and activities.

“We should refer to these lessons of the pandemic and move forward to a better normal with better air quality for all,” she said. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.