View from Manila: Duterte must deliver ambitious climate plan

Former head of Philippines climate commission calls on new president to accept climate science and slow coal power growth

Manila, Philippines (Pic: travel oriented/Flickr)

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The Philippines has a long and proud history of participating in global efforts to tackle climate change, dating back to 1995 with the first UN climate conference in Berlin.

It is now incumbent on our government to hold a national consultation to firm up its own plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, also known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC).

This will be the gateway for implementing a plan for industrialization and sustainable development, as outlined by new president Rodrigo Duterte. But it will be 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.  As chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, the Philippines went further by striving for 1.5 degree C to raise global ambition.

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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.

Planned new coal plants across the Philippines' three main islands (Pic: Coal Swarm)

Planned new coal plants across the Philippines’ three main islands (Pic: Coal Swarm)

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 a dependence of around 70% 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.

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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, now heading Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Both questioned 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,” 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.

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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 climate plan impairs this principle. Our proposals stress 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% – but only if our palms are greased by largesse from the international community.

A two-term Senator, Heherson T. Alvarez chaired the Senate Committee on Environment for ten years.  In February 1995, he convened the First Asia-Pacific Conference on Climate Change in Manila.  

He currently chairs the Advisory Board of the Climate Institute, one of the oldest think-tank environmental groups based in Washington

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