In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte called on all signatories of the Paris Agreement to do their part in reducing carbon emissions. He said that he will consider declaring a “climate emergency” because mitigating the effects of climate change is a priority. Meanwhile, Congress is deliberating on a higher proposed budget for renewable energy.
This is a seeming turnaround from the president’s 2016 declaration that the Philippines will not honor commitments under the Paris climate change deal. But maybe not – the country’s increasing reliance on coal betrays the Duterte administration’s green turn as mere posturing. The government is maintaining the country’s high dependence on coal. This puts into doubt whether it is genuinely concerned about the Philippine environment and declaring a climate emergency. A higher proposed budget for renewable energy also does not necessarily indicate seriousness towards greener energy.
Using more coal than ever
A real shift to renewable energy will help the country phase out of relying on coal and fossil fuels. But the heavy and mounting use of coal shows that the government is not really keen on this. The highly privatized power sector is predictably choosing to source energy where it is most profitable for it.
Energy supply in the Philippines is still primarily sourced from fossil fuels. Non-renewable oil and coal made up 61% of energy sources in 2018, while the rest were renewable sources including geothermal and biomass. Oil is largely used for transportation and commercial purposes. The industry and electricity sectors meanwhile rely heavily on coal which takes up 32% and 31.5% of 2018 energy consumption, respectively.
The government is increasingly reliant on coal for power generation. Department of Energy (DOE) data shows that, under the Duterte administration, power generated from coal rose from 43,303 gigawatt hours (Gwh) in 2016 to 57,890 Gwh which is over half of total power generated (106,041 Gwh) in 2019. Only 22,044 Gwh of power was generated from renewable energy.
In its study “The State of the Philippine Environment”, IBON noted that 11 of the 49 committed power projects across the country are coal-fired power plants and account for 78% of the projects’ combined rated capacity of 6,280 megawatts (MW). Out of 345 indicative power projects, 18 are coal-fired accounting for 28% of the rated capacity.
The Philippines is also increasing coal imports. Imported coal made up 13.1% of the primary energy supply mix in 2016, 15.8% in 2017, and 17% in 2018; the share of indigenous coal as well as renewable energy correspondingly decreased . Coal self-sufficiency fell from 45.2% to 37.9% over the same period.
IBON also stressed that coal is cheap but hazardous to the environment and the people. Yet, the country continues to receive imported fossil fuels, technology, and foreign investment. Some of these have been rejected or banned in their countries of origin due to environmental concerns. As a result, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Philippines increased by 425% annually from 1990 to 2016, mostly coming from power generation. Coal was responsible for half of the GHG emissions.
Serious about renewables?
Clearly, getting rid of the Philippines’ coal dependence will be a concrete step towards embracing sustainable energy. Environment-friendly sourcing of energy is possible through community-based, people-determined solar, air and water energy generators.
In the proposed 2021 budget for the DOE, the Renewable Energy Development Program gets a higher allocation at Php117.9 million from Php112.5 million last year. However, Philippine governments’ push for renewable energy – specifically geothermal, biomass, hydropower and biofuels, can actually harm the environment, IBON’s study bares.
The construction of geothermal plants destroys forest cover and disturbs the natural habitat. For example, in the Southern Negros geothermal area, trees near the well sites shed their leaves due to emissions of sulfur oxide.
Hydropower generation through large dams is meanwhile pursued to attract foreign direct investments. However, the large impounding areas common with such projects submerge the lands where they are built, disrupt the natural ecology of river systems, and displaces communities in inundated areas. They also cause sedimentation which eventually weakens power and water generation capacity.
The construction of the Kaliwa and Laiban dams, for instance, will displace over 6,000 households and flood barangays in Tanay, Rizal and General Nakar, Quezon, mainly where the Dumagat and Remontado indigenous people live. Agricultural, forest, and wildlife areas inside the Kaliwa Watershed Forest Reserve will also be flooded.
The Biofuels Act of 2007 aims to encourage investment in locally produced biofuels. This however diverts attention and scarce resources from food production and supply. Biofuel farms also usually involve the use of large amounts of fresh water, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and fossil fuel, in agrichemical monocropping.
If the government is sincere about declaring a “climate emergency” and protecting the Philippine environment, it needs to give more value to the environment and to people’s needs over the profits of energy businesses. If it does so, then it can pursue more sustainable options in sourcing and distributing energy across residential, commercial and industrial sectors.