Nguyễn Trọng Thuấn, left his house in Hanoi during quarantine to a much less crowded street. The Vietnamese capital has been in lockdown since April 1, but some things don’t change—the ubiquitous presence of facemasks, and the orange air visual alert on Thuận’s phone.

  • People riding motorbikes on Ha Noi’s streets during quarantine | Image Credit: Tuan Mark, Soha 

Meanwhile in Jakarta, Indonesia,  Astrid Tulung, who commutes 40 kilometres from her home to her office in Tangerang Province, noted a marked decrease in smoke pollution from vehicles’ mufflers since the start of lockdown. 

“I can’t really tell about fresh air because I have to wear a mask everywhere, but the reduced numbers of vehicles on the street makes the skies clearer,” she said. 

Not many have experienced such a shift in Hanoi.

Lockdown Air Quality: Regional Gradations

Jakarta air quality
South Jakarta Daytime during the restriction period. Photo by Ari Wibisono

The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) recently published a report comparing air quality improvements during COVID-19 lockdowns across Southeast Asia. Even within the region, much variation has been noted from city to city. Malaysia and the Philippines topped the list in terms of significant improvement, while Vietnam’s pollution remained high, according to satellite data analysed by the authors.

In Jakarta, where large-scale social restrictions have been enforced since April 10, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels from March to May were 40% lower than last year’s. However, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels, meanwhile have remained consistent, averaging at 51.7 μg/m3. 

  • Greater Jakarta and Banten region NO2 levels from March 12 to May 5, 2020 (left) and 2019 (right) | Image Credit: CREA

Using the same metrics for Hanoi, the authors noted that NO2 only decreased by 10%, while PM2.5 also remained consistent. CREA’s results have been reported by local news, with Vietnamese NGO Media Climate Net creating a video highlighting the surprisingly insignificant drop. 

  • Hanoi NO2 levels from February 13 to May 5, 2020 (left) and 2019 (right) | Image Credit: CREA

Another Day in the Life 

Jakarta and Hanoi are among the world’s most polluted cities. Both capitals have consistently ranked highly on the real-time world’s air quality report website, IQAir’s list of most polluted cities, with PM2.5 levels well above WHO’s safety standards.

Even before COVID-19 shutdowns started, Hanoi residents were no strangers to wearing masks while travelling on the streets.

“I have to wear a mask almost anywhere. If you don’t wear a mask while travelling on the roads you risk a lot of pulmonary diseases,” resident Lê Mạnh Linh shared. Nguyễn Thanh An, meanwhile, spoke of areas on the outskirts of the city, such as Thanh Xuân and Hoàng Mai filled with grey air due to the high concentration of factories.

After lockdown started, Thuấn found that his experience of the city’s air quality had not changed much. He even began ignoring his Air Visual alerts since they fell within unhealthy zones on most days. 

A Vietnamese woman before a COVID-19 billboard in Ha Noi | Image Credit: Tuan Mark, Soha 

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, residents note that lockdown air quality varied between Jakarta’s city centre, where strict rules are enforced, and neighbouring provinces, where this may not be the case. Jakarta’s empty, cleaner streets are quite different from Chandra Wanandri’s 6-kilometre commute from his house in Bekasi City to his office in East Jakarta. 

“Since I ride my bike every day, even during the restriction period, I don’t sense any cleaner air nor cooler temperature along my way to the office,” Wanandri said. “The streets are still crowded with cars and motorcycles with all the pollution,” he added.

  • PM2.5 hourly concentrations in Hanoi constantly exceeded Vietnam’s standard and WHO guidelines. | Image taken from VIDEO by Media Climate Net.

Tracing the Source  

Transportation, industrial, residential and business activities are not the only contributors to Jakarta’s air pollution. According to Greenpeace’s 2017 Silent Killer report, 20-30% comes from coal-fired power plants in surrounding areas.

Some experts, including Greenpeace Climate and Energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu, don’t find it surprising that PM2.5 has not decreased during the lockdown. Bondan highlighted the presence of 12 coal-fired power plants within a 100-kilometre-radius of Jakarta as one of the factors sustaining high levels of this pollutant.  

“Air pollution knows no boundaries. It is also influenced by natural factors such as wind, humidity and rainfall,” Bondan said. “Pollution from power plants could travel far.”

Remaining Questions and Challenges 

Trần Đình Sinh, Vice President of Vietnamese climate and energy NGO GreenID, believes that CREA’S report clearly proves that traffic is not the main cause of air pollution in Hanoi. He is hesitant, however, in attributing this to coal until further research is conducted.

Sinh pointed out how CREA’s satellite emission measurements cannot conclusively prove cause and effect. “There has not been a comprehensive study on the various sources of air pollution in Hanoi that answers all the major questions—how many sources are there, how much do they contribute to total emissions, what do they emit and for how long,” he noted.

Ahmad Syafruddin, executive director of Jakarta’s Leaded Gasoline Elimination Committee (KPBB), agreed with Sinh. “Without comprehensive study and research, it is a bit tendentious to link other sources like coal-fired power plants directly to Jakarta’s air quality,” he said.

Industrial pollution accounts for 30% of the total pollutants in Jakarta, according to the emissions inventory research by Breath Easy Jakarta. Coal-fired power plant contaminants, which are part of the industrial category, account for 8% of the industry’s share.

Bondan sees this lack in research as a symptom of structural inadequacies. Although the Indonesian government has implemented an open-source database on air pollution, inadequate monitoring instruments and outdated air quality regulations present real obstacles in handling air pollution.

Moving Forward: Opportunities for a Transition  

Despite their capital cities’ air being so dirty and facing structural challenges for the research and promotion of green technologies, both Indonesia and Vietnam have great potential for developing clean energy. Still, in order for change to happen, decisive actions are needed. 

Linh is hopeful about Vietnam’s energy future. “There’s so much opportunity in Vietnam [to develop renewable energy] because we have so much coastline as well as [potential for] wind and solar power,” he said. He also believes that the government is starting to see the incentives to do so. “We’re a rapidly urbanizing country. so there’s a big need for a diverse energy portfolio. Vietnam also suffers directly from climate change, so it has to be most mindful.”

 “[Indonesia] needs strict regulations from the governments to shift to renewable energy,” said Bondan. “They need to stop building and shut down coal-fired power plants. Also investing in a public transportation system that is mutually integrated to impose strict rules on the use of vehicles.”

If there is no attempt to better study pollution and implement necessary changes in these two countries, economic losses and public health concerns—especially respiratory diseases—will continue to increase.

Header photo by Ari Wibisono

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