MANILA, April 21 — Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje assured the nation on Tuesday that the government has been working systematically to reduce the impact of climate change, which remains the single biggest environmental threat facing the country and the world.
In his highly anticipated report on the country's state of the environment, Paje said government agencies led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) are committed to countering the adverse effects of climate change and building sustainable solutions for the long-term benefit of people and nature.
"Climate change is now part of our lives and it is no longer an impending threat. It is real, it is happening, and now, this is the new normal," Paje told a crowd, mostly students attending a three-day youth camping at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife in Quezon City, as part of the local celebration of the Earth Day.
The environment chief gave an overview of the current state and development of the environment, particularly on the measures implemented by the DENR to improve environmental protection and make communities more resilient to a changing climate, which has led to extreme weather events and natural disasters in recent years.
Foremost among these measures, he said, is the Aquino administration's National Greening Program (NGP) that seeks to cover 1.5 million hectares with trees from 2011 to 2016.
Paje said the NGP is expected to surpass the country's reforestation efforts in the past 50 years by 28 percent, making it the most massive reforestation program in Philippine history.
"More and better forests comprise the linchpin of our strategies, and our main line of defense against climate change," Paje said.
After four years of implementing the NGP, Paje said the country's forest cover rose to 7.8 million hectares from 6.8 million hectares in 2010, adding that more than two million jobs have been generated through the program.
He also cited the imposition of the total log ban in natural and residual forests, which remarkably reduced illegal logging hotspots to 23 from what used to be 197 in 2010.
Paje likewise reported the completion of higher-resolution geohazard maps, on a scale of 1:10,000, indicating areas highly susceptible to landslides and flash floods in 1,634 cities and municipalities nationwide.
He said the maps are designed to help local government units in preparing their respective disaster reduction and management plans, and make them more responsive during disasters.
Paje also cited the achievements in other areas of environmental protection such as clean air, clean water, mines and geosciences, land management, and minerals development.
In addressing air pollution, Paje noted the steady improvement in ambient air quality in Metro Manila with its reduced pollution level in terms of total suspended particulates (TSP) concentration at 128 micrograms per normal cubic meter for the period covering JanuaryMarch 2015, compared with the 166 recorded in 2010. The normal level is 90.
"The DENR vows to move doubly hard to ensure that international air quality standards are met throughout the metropolis before President Benigno Aquino III steps down in 2016," he said.
In line with this, all 16 cities and one municipality comprising Metro Manila now have at least one air quality monitoring station (AQMS), which is used to measure systematically concentrations of pollutants in ambient air and provide a scientific basis for measures to reduce air pollution and protect the community's health.
The DENR also recently issued a directive requiring the use of cleaner fuel and imposing stricter emission standards starting July 2015, as part of government efforts to improve air quality in Metro Manila and other urban areas in the country.
In terms of managing biodiversity and coastal resources, Paje said the government has rolled out a landmark policy mandating the conservation of 240 protected areas both terrestrial and marine, 113 of which are now proclaimed while 13 have been legislated.
He said many of the priority protected areas have been added to the list of ASEAN Heritage Parks or AHPs: Mt. Malindang National Park; Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve; Tubattaha Reefs Natural Park; and the Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary as World Heritage Site, the sixth for the country and first in Mindanao.
The coral reefs and ecosystems of the nation's 34 Marine Protected Areas are now strictly under protection jointly by the DENR and local governments, thereby enhancing the ecotourism potential of these sites. The department has assessed and mapped 60,593 hectares of coral reef system and consistently protected 53,589.5 hectares.
Moreover, strengthened species conservation efforts resulted in increased population of key species like the Philippine Eagle which was a mere 29 head in 2010 but has now gone up to 52. The Philippine Tamaraw also increased from 274 in 2011 to 382 in 2014.
In the area of clean water, the DENR is currently reviving 19 priority rivers that pollution has rendered incapable of sustaining aquatic life. Five of those rivers are now compliant with the biochemical oxygen demand standard, while nine are compliant with the standard for dissolved oxygen.
The department also signed a total of 549 agreements with various partners for the continuing cleanup of esteros and rivers across the country. It has also operationalized 18 water quality management areas.
According to Paje, these initiatives helped restore the faith of the public in the government's capability to protect the environment and conserve the country's natural resources, as shown in the Pulse Asia survey in March where 48 percent of the respondents approved of the Aquino administration's environmental performance, ranking second in the overall comparative performance rankings of the national administration.
The 48 percent approval rating is a significant improvement over the 45 percent posted in the November 2014 survey, he pointed out.
However, Paje said these remarkable achievements under the present administration should not be reason for the DENR and the public to be complacent.
"I would like to believe that although we have done so much, these will never be enough," Paje said, as he urged the public to support all of the government's environmental programs and to do their own share in protecting the environment.
"This Earth Day 2015, let us keep in mind that we all have the right, and the responsibility, to do the best that we can for our environment. This is for everyone, everywhere, everyday," he added. (PNA)