Urgent Call for Action: Strengthening the Philippine Clean Air Act to Safeguard Public Health and Environment

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As the Philippines gears up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Philippine Clean Air Act in 2024, it’s vital to acknowledge both the progress made and the challenges that persist in the work towards cleaner air.

Despite strides in technology and environmental awareness over the past decades, the current emission standards for stationary sources, including coal-fired power plants, outlined in the Philippine Clean Air Act remain outdated. While a significant piece of legislation, it fails to fully address the continuing threat posed by coal-fired plants, which jeopardize public health and environmental sustainability.

Coal-fired plants are notorious for emitting harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), and mercury, contributing significantly to air pollution. These pollutants have been linked to various health issues, including respiratory diseases and cardiovascular problems, leading to thousands of premature deaths annually. Air pollution accounts for more than 1 in 9 deaths globally. (Health Effects Institute, accessed 2024)

Moreover, it’s alarming that the Philippines currently maintains some of the most lenient sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emission standards in the region, as highlighted in Clean Air Asia’s Coal-Fired Power Plants Emissions Standards report in 2021. Urgent measures are needed to tighten these standards in line with international best practices and to protect public health.

After much delay, in March this year, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued a consultation draft of a proposed Department Administrative Order (DAO) updating the emission standards for stationary sources of air pollution, including coal-fired power plants. The draft order cuts the current allowable emissions of PM, SOx and NOx for coal-fired power plants by 50%, making the standards more stringent (Table 1). While this is a step in the right direction, the allowable emissions must be cut further to align with international best practice in Asia to safeguard public health.

Lowering the allowable emissions further would result in higher health benefits for communities near the facilities. A study in Bataan by Clean Air Asia showed that implementing 100 mg/NCM (SOx), 100 mg/NCM (NOx), and 30 mg/NCM (PM) emission limits (as per international best practice in Asia) could result to up to an ~83% reduction in acute respiratory infections, and consequently can avoid higher health costs (Clean Air Asia (2021). Emissions Inventory, Air Quality Modeling and Health Benefits Mapping in Limay and Mariveles, Bataan)).

Glynda Bathan-Baterina, Deputy Executive Director of Clean Air Asia, underscores the urgency of action, stating:

“The tightening of emission standards means better safeguards for the health of our citizens. Stringent emission standards means lesser air pollutants released by coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities. Clean Air Asia is at the forefront of working for a cleaner, healthier future for all Filipinos, particularly considering the detrimental health impacts associated with coal-fired plants. “

Tighter emission standards means that coal-fired power plants may need to install pollution control devices or adopt processes to keep air emissions within standards. Coal-fired power plants releasing high levels of pollution and unable to meet emission standards and those whose operations would no longer be economically feasible could be prioritized for retirement. This strategic approach aligns with the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) target of achieving a 75% reduction in emissions as well as with the country’s clean air and health goals. Environmental and health considerations must be important pillars of a just energy transition process, promoting a cleaner and more resilient energy sector.

As we commemorate the anniversary of the Philippine Clean Air Act, let us seize this opportunity to fulfil an important mandate in the Act and its implementing rules that within two (2) years from the effectivity of the Act, the DENR shall revise stationary sources emission standards based on internationally-accepted standards, for the protection of the public’s health and welfare. This is long overdue. It is time to get it done.

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