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Climate change and health

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 12, 2015 - 9:00am

About a year ago our office physician checked some of us for the condition of our lungs. He told me that mine were about 98 percent clean and exceptionally healthy.

I attribute this to being a non-smoker my entire life, living in a part of Metro Manila where there are still a lot of trees, and driving around and working in air-conditioned environments as much as possible to avoid the city’s horrid air pollution.

Millions of other people, however, are forced to inhale that foul air. Metro Manila smog is an equal-opportunity oppressor. From the Skyway over the SLEX, I always see the densest, darkest smog in Metro Manila suspended among the skyscrapers of Makati and neighboring Taguig, as if the particulates are trapped in between the high-rises.

At certain hours, the smog is also heavy at Ground Zero of Manila traffic, the Port Area. There, cargo trucks can sit for hours on end, their engines idling and spewing toxic fumes as they inch their way toward the port to collect or deliver shipments. Unlike in Makati, strong breeze from Manila Bay can lift the smog, but the pollution lingers long enough to be inhaled. Those who are constantly exposed to this foul air probably have blackened lungs.

Measures to use cleaner fuels and reduce those vehicular emissions are among the topics to be discussed at the annual Conference of Parties (COP 21) or the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, which starts later this month in the French capital, shortly after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila.

So alongside preparations for APEC, we are busy preparing for COP 21. Our country is joining others in committing to several initiatives to deal with climate change.

Whether we can deliver on our commitments remains to be seen. Our government can’t even ease heavy tariffs on hybrid vehicles. Even if environment-conscious Pinoys want to use the popular hybrid Toyota Prius or, for the affluent, the Lexus, the tariffs are prohibitive.

There are e-vehicles around, and who wouldn’t want to use vehicles that mean huge savings in fuel? But they require substantial initial investments. The e-tricycles, for example, cost about three times more than the ordinary one using a regular motorcycle.

Also, e-vehicles and even certain hybrids need a supporting infrastructure that we don’t have.

Biodiesel has become popular among our taxis. But there are also environmental costs in producing biofuels, with forests and natural habitats plus food supplies threatened.

So we’re still stuck with vehicles that run mostly on fossil fuels – with all the pollution that they produce and we inhale. Even with higher emission standards imposed, given the spotty enforcement of the Clean Air Act, that heavy smog in Metro Manila isn’t about to go away any time soon.

We’re also not about to wean ourselves significantly from our dependence on carbon-producing coal for power generation. Industries and commercial establishments have also been slow to switch to environment-friendly technology, even if told that the steep initial investment will prove cost-effective in the long term.

* * *

The other day I had a chat with Paul Wilkinson, professor of environmental epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Wilkinson is a member of the UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants and has worked for several years as an adviser to the World Health Organization on matters relating to urban health and climate change.

His main research interests involve environmental pollution, climate change, urban development and health. His work was used as reference in the report of the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, a multidisciplinary study that involved collaboration between academic centers in Europe and China.

Professor Wilkinson was in Manila this week for talks at the Senate and the University of the Philippines in Manila, mainly on the impact of climate change on public health.

I asked him if the Philippines could have a role model among other developing nations in dealing with climate change. He said each country is unique and would have to adopt different approaches.

The UK, for example, is moving toward greater reliance on nuclear energy for its needs, considering it cleaner and safer. But this, Wilkinson noted, is because the UK does not lie along a part of the planet with a lot of seismic activity that can threaten nuclear plants.

Aversion to nuclear energy is understandable, he said, in countries within the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is dotted with active volcanoes and earthquake faults. That’s us, where the Marcos regime built the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant near an earthquake fault.

Wind and solar energy are still unreliable, but they can augment our needs and the government can provide incentives for investments in these areas.

The government can also offer more incentives to develop natural gas and renewable energy sources.

Since we are within the Ring of Fire, there can be more incentives to tap geothermal energy. Iceland, with its uniquely majestic landscape of volcanoes, geysers and glaciers, is almost completely dependent on geothermal energy. It’s clean and the geothermal pools are tourist attractions.

The Lancet Commission has four key findings.

One is that climate change is threatening to undermine gains in development and global health over the past half-century. Projections for the future impact see a “potentially catastrophic risk” to human health.

The study sees climate change as this century’s global health opportunity.

Climate change is basically a human health issue, according to the study, and health professionals have a key role in formulating mitigation and adaptation.

A critical finding is that if we want to achieve public health gains from a “de-carbonized” economy, we need not only technological and economic approaches but also political action. The last one is our weak spot.

 

ACIRC ASIA-PACIFIC ECONOMIC COOPERATION BATAAN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT CHANGE CLEAN AIR ACT CLIMATE CONFERENCE OF PARTIES HEALTH LANCET COMMISSION MANILA METRO MANILA
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