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Let's clear the air about this pollution business

April 11, 2022 | 06:59 pm PT
Hoang Duong Tung Environment expert
After the pandemic cleared the air somewhat, will the new normal mark a return to abnormal, dangerous levels of air pollution? It's up to us, really.

I appreciate very much the 2021 World Air Quality Report by IQAir for the overview it provides us about the world and country situation.

One significant fact is the improvement of air quality globally, including Vietnam.

However, the situation in Vietnam does not surprise me because many other domestic and international surveys also said the same thing.

We all know that in 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many socio-economic development activities were restrained, which meant that emissions were dramatically reduced. In Hanoi and other cities, there were times that the number of cars and motorbikes circulating on the streets decreased by 70-80 percent. Many factories had to close, construction works stalled. Therefore, the air in 2021 was cleaner than in previous years.

Now, in the first months of 2022, we are returning to normalcy. The roads are packed with cars and motorbikes, factories are operating again, and construction works have restarted. And we see that the air quality index (AQI) has risen in some places, including Hanoi and some northern provinces.

As someone who has been working on this issue for many years, keeping myself regularly updated with information about air pollution and its terrible impacts on people's health, I am very concerned about this return to normalcy, or the new normal, as it's called now.

The health sector has reported that the number of people with lung cancer has increased worryingly in recent years in some cities and rural areas. The number of children suffering from respiratory diseases has also surged.

In the past, we were not very sure about the relationship between PM2.5 concentrations in the air and various diseases; but now, people are obviously more aware of it.

Air pollution can affect on any family, any age, regardless of their wealth. People have to breathe the same air indoors and outdoors when they live in the same city or region. There are many people jokingly saying that in addition to the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, Hanoi also has a "pollution season".

I have several acquaintances who have severe asthma. They all say that they are fine when they go abroad but they feel short of breath when they return to Hanoi. They buy indoor air purifiers but they still need to go out sometimes. Over the years, their asthma has worsened.

This is simple, straightforward evidence that though air quality has improved in the past year, if no effective and timely measures are taken to reduce air pollution, things can go from bad to worse.

The polluted air in area of Thanh Xuan District towards Nam Tu Liem District in Hanoi, Dec 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do

The polluted air in area of Thanh Xuan District towards Nam Tu Liem District in Hanoi, Dec 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ba Do

More aware

In recent years, thanks to the development of the internet of things and the monitoring technology, people are constantly provided with information about the air quality where they live. Previously, whenever people felt stuffy, they blamed it on the weather, but today, most know air pollution is to blame. The media has also contributed significantly to providing information and raising awareness about the causes and effects of air pollution, what has been done and needs to be done to reduce it.

For a long time, the main sources of air pollution were emissions from industrial production facilities, construction activities, vehicles, recycling villages (metal, paper, plastic production), burning natural waste or from substandard incinerators and the burning of rice straw after harvest.

It is not difficult to recognize the smoke and dust from coal-fired power plants, cement, iron and steel, chemical factories (accounting for 80 percent of industrial emissions - according to some estimates). The uncontrolled emission from motorbikes and cars in big cities has made the atmosphere increasingly stuffy, especially at rush hour. Hanoi has weeks of heavy smoke in late afternoons and night because suburban people burn rice straw after each harvest.

Management agencies have made efforts to mitigate air pollution impacts and control emissions sources to try and ensure people get fresh air to breathe. With the first Law on Environmental Protection being issued in 1993, and then revised and supplemented in 2005, 2014 and 2020, many policies, measures have been proposed and applied. The laws require environmental impact assessments and environmental permits (from 2022), set emission standards and require large emission contributors to install automatic monitoring equipment. Central and local agencies are required to regularly inspect polluting facilities, publicize monitoring results, and enhance community participation in the pollution fight.

Not enough

Nonetheless, all these stops have not proved enough. Air quality has not improved and has even gotten worse in some places. Pollution sources are increasing, and these are not controlled well. Some production facilities have shown a blatant disregard for laws.

Despite a lot of talk about pollution sources, we still don't know sources' actual contribution to air pollution so as to identify priority actions and resources. The Law on Environmental Protection has long mandated a specific, scientific inventory of emissions, but this has remained on paper, thus far.

In addition, the Law on Environmental Protection requires establishments to install automatic monitoring equipment and send data online continuously to the local environmental management agency for monitoring and inspection. Many facilities have invested in installing this expensive equipment but questions remain about quality of these monitoring devices, how they function, who checks them and the quality of data they produce is. Not to mention that the figures have not been publicized as required. So the law and policy have been distorted making things unfair for those who comply with the laws and creating costs for society that we can only ignore at our peril.

Although many establishments have been sanctioned by the inspectors and the fines increased, the number of violating establishments has not decreased. Many establishments continue to pollute after being fined.

In Vietnam and in some other countries, it has been proven that "punishment per violation" is not effective in environmental management. The fines are high but they are many times smaller than the investment needed for equipment and maintenance, so many businesses are willing to pay fines instead of investing in environmental protection works that meet emission standards.

Act now

We know that it is not possible to solve the air pollution problem in a day. However, like many people, I am impatient with what is going on. There are too many unanswered questions: Are we determined enough? What needs to be done, who will do it? Is it really very difficult to control and prevent air pollution? What are the experiences of other countries and what can we learn from them?

Vietnam's problems are not new or special. Countries maintain an emission inventory regularly to identify the who, what and how much of polluters. Forecasts are made based on collected data. Data is processed and made available to the community. Vehicles are periodically checked and only that meet emission standards are allowed to remain on roads. Green transport means such as electric vehicles and public transportation are encouraged. Emission standards are increasingly tightened. Countries have also changed the punishment per violation model that Vietnam is still applying, to a system where the fines increase every day if the violation continues.

It is very important to note that when the authorities issue policies, we need to pay close attention to how they are implemented and achieve consensus about the process so that it is even, predictable and fair.

For instance, to deal with the burning of rice straw after harvest, the authorities should not just apply administrative measures but also carry out management solutions to create conditions for farmers earn more income from the straw.

The good news is that in recent years, people's awareness of air pollution has improved markedly. The concepts of PM2.5, its impacts on health, and pollution sources are not as alien to people as they were a few years ago. Many people regularly monitor air quality through websites or mobile apps.

But all this is not enough. Each and every stakeholder in this fight, which means all of us, have to push for timely and effective actions to prevent and reduce air pollution.

If we don't, we are seriously compromising our health and that of succeeding generations.

* Dr Hoang Duong Tung is president of the Vietnam Clean Air Network and former deputy director of the Vietnam Environment Administration under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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