By Heherson T. Alvarez
With the Philippines having officially participated officially for the past two decades since the first Conference of Parties – COP1 in Berlin until COP21 in Paris – where the global deal was forged, it is now incumbent on our government to hold a national consultation to firm up its intended nationally determined contributions (INDC).
This will be the gateway for the Duterte policy for industrialization and sustainable development. It is also essential to resolve the clash between policy and reality.
We have pledged support to the world’s goal of reducing global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. And the Philippines, as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, went further by striving for 1.5 degree C to raise global ambition.
However, at the Senate hearings in July 2015, the Dept. of Energy (DOE) unfolded a terrifying trend to use coal as a major energy source over the next few decades. Currently, coal comprises almost 40 percent of the country’s energy mix. There are 17 existing coal plants in the country, with a capacity of 18,500 MW.
DOE has approved 29 more coal-fired plants. Twelve of these plants with a total capacity of 3,400MW are already under construction, scheduled for completion by 2018. It is estimated that these plants will require at least 10 million tons of coal a year. Thus, without any significant intervention, the Philippines can expect an extremely high dependence of 70 percent on coal from 2030 to 2050, according to DOE Undersecretary Loreta Ayson during a Senate hearing last year.
This move has been justified as a cheap solution to the country’s precarious power supply. “Cheap” in the sense that coal subsidies and coal impacts on the environment and human health are not taken into account. If these subsidies and impacts are factored in, coal would be far more expensive than renewable energy sources.
Last year, Philippine imports of foreign coal soared to a record 15.2 million tons — and so did concerns about our energy security. By relying on imported coal, the Philippines has firmly placed the country’s energy security in the hands of foreign countries.
These facts did not elude Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Climate Change Committee, and Naderev Saño, a former colleague at the Climate Change Commission. Both courageously questioned and attacked Philippine reliance on coal imports.
The trend, Legarda pronounced, was “detached from human reality.” She regretted that certain government agencies provided permits to new coal plants, despite scientific evidence that carbon dioxide from widespread coal-use is the main culprit for global warming.
“What is simply ironic about this vigorous push for coal-fired power plants in our country is while the whole world is moving away from coal, we are embracing it as the cure for our development challenges,” Yeb Saño stressed.
In terms of public health, higher coal dependence is a distinct threat. A few months ago (Feb. 3, 2016), a new Greenpeace Southeast Asia report revealed the health impacts of existing coal-fired power plants, estimating some 960 premature deaths each year due to stroke, ischemic heart disease, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
If the planned power plants become operational, Greenpeace projects premature deaths may rise to 2,410 yearly — more than double the current number of people dying from coal-related pollution in the Philippines.
Even more seriously, the growing reliance on coal contradicts the principles of the National Framework Strategy on Climate Change. The strategy specifically calls for a national economic shift towards low-carbon, sustainable development that is “imperative for a country and a people aspiring to be resilient in a turbulently changing climate.”
In the long run, broader coal-use negates our quest for intergenerational equity and social justice. More, it runs counter to our anti-poverty rhetoric, including sustainable development for current and future generations.
In many parts of the globe, as documented by the World Future Council and Climate Action Network, leaders are beginning to discover that fighting poverty and protecting the climate go hand in hand. Scaling up renewable energy can benefit development programs by boosting energy access for the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the population.
It is therefore imperative for us to overcome these policy and program barriers. To resolve them, we must bring together the best minds in our scientific, technological, academic, legal and legislative communities.
At the same time, we must begin to earnestly work on key and related aspects that will define our ability to give flesh to our Paris commitment. Among these are initiatives to scale up low-carbon investments and bold solutions by:
- Providing a central platform for domestic industries and businesses to commit to meaningful climate actions that encourage low-carbon investments.
- Ensuring that our economic planners decouple our prosperity and development from coal and fossil fuel use.
- Planning and legislating carbon pricing, which is the key to unleashing potential investments needed for energy infrastructure development.
- Creating incentives to reduce emissions in all sectors, alongside a mechanism for trading emission units in global markets.
- Adopting the global environmental disclosure system that enables companies, cities and regions to be transparent and accountable.
A final barrier, perhaps, is our inability to respect the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility,” one of the cornerstones of sustainable development. As an ethic of international environmental law, this principle pervades the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The iffy and tenuous nature of our INDC impairs this principle. Our INDC stresses that our total mitigation contribution to the Paris Accord will “necessarily be conditional on the extent of financial resources, technology development and transfer, and capacity building that will be made available to the Philippines.”
Our stance as an independent nation should be to do all that we can do to fulfill our contractual obligations. It smacks of hypocrisy to claim that we will cut emissions by 70 percent – but only if our palms are greased by largesse from the international community.
(Former Secretary of the Department of Environment, Heherson T. Alvarez currently chairs the Advisory Board of the Washington D.C.-based Climate Institute, one of the oldest environmental organizations in the USA. In the Philippines Senate he chaired the Senate Committee on Environment for 10 years, and has successfully negotiated with oil multinationals to introduce unleaded gasoline in the domestic market in 1994. He crafted the Philippines’ National Framework Strategy on Climate Change when he was Vice-Chair of the Philippines’ Climate Change Commission.)