#ClimateActionPH dilemma: Cutting carbon emissions from coal
MANILA, Philippines – With a platform that’s focused on crime, drugs, and corruption, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte doesn’t seem to have a concrete stance on climate change issues. (READ: Advocates dismayed at presidential bets' 'catfight' over coal)
Nevertheless, as the presumptive winner of the 2016 presidential elections, he will have to face this dilemma head-on: how to fulfill a 70-percent cut in the Philippines’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a chunk of which is supposed to come from the energy sector.
The cut was promised by the Aquino administration under the Paris Agreement on climate change. The glaring irony is that the administration also approved 29 new coal-fired power plants, which will go online by 2020.
Coal combustion is a major producer of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which causes global warming and its flipside, climate change.
Those new coal plants are expected to bring coal’s share in the country’s energy mix to over 70 percent by the time we’re supposed to have fulfilled our committed emission reduction.
Yet the issue isn’t merely our commitment to the Paris Agreement. Even without it, the Philippines needs to get serious about mitigating climate change because the country is most vulnerable to it, experts say.
Moving toward renewable energy plays a critical role in slowing down climate change, and it reduces the Philippines’ exposure to dirty and imported fossil fuels, whose prices fluctuate all the time.
The Philippines launched its ambitious shift to renewable energy sources in 2011, when President Aquino unveiled the National Renewable Energy Program (NREP). The program aims to triple the country’s renewable energy capacity by 2030 and fulfill the goals set under the Renewable Energy Act of 2008.
The country currently has a “balanced” energy mix, comprised of coal (32.4%), oil-based fuels and natural gas (33.4%), and renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind, and solar power (32.4%).
We’re targeting a renewable energy supply of 15,300 megawatts (MW) by 2030, about 50% of the demand forecast of 30,000 MW.
But we’ve been slow in meeting the targets. According to the NREP, the country’s renewable energy installed capacity was expected to increase by 7,594 MW by 2015. However, based on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) summary of renewable energy projects as of January 2016, our current renewable power supply only stands at 3026.3 MW.
Worse, while the goal is to shift the mix to 50% renewables, the government granted new permits to dozens of coal power plants, which will sway it to 70% coal.
The government said the move is meant to address our energy security concerns. (READ: Energy chief to Al Gore: PH already changing its energy thinking)
As a rapidly developing country, the Philippines has an ever-rising energy demand. The country currently has a total installed capacity of 18,445 MW, with a dependable capacity of 15,838 MW. Last summer, peak demand in Luzon alone reached a record-high of 9,700 MW.
The main argument for coal power is that it takes the shortest time to build hence it’s the fastest way to cope with demand. It’s also reportedly cheaper to produce.
Coal power plants are also a major source of the country’s baseload requirements. A baseload power plant operates 24/7 at almost full capacity to meet an area’s energy needs.
True hidden costs
But coal is more expensive than you think.
The Philippines has no control over the price of coal in the global market. On top of coal’s fluctuating price, there are other charges such as transportation and fuel expenses that go with its use. While the Philippines has sizeable coal mining operations, including the one on Semirara Island, it is expected to significantly expand its status as a net importer of coal from countries such as Indonesia, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2015 Southeast Asia Energy Outlook.
Market forces aren’t the only thing we should be worried about. According to Senator Loren Legarda, author of the Climate Change Act of 2009, the cost of externalities should also be factored in when computing the true cost of coal power.
Coal combustion emits greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution and global warming. Greenpeace International said coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. The International Monetary Fund reported that the actual cost of burning fossil fuels, such as coal, amounts to $5.3 trillion annually, which includes costs of damage to public health and the environment.
A study conducted by Harvard University for Greenpeace revealed that coal plants account for roughly 960 deaths in the country annually due to pollution and work hazard-related diseases. This figure may even increase to 2,410 once the additional power plants are built by 2020.
Renewable energy prices are going down
Common sense will dictate that it’s high time to stop burning coal for power – especially when renewable energy continues to become a viable alternative.
Unlike coal, renewable energy emits only small levels of gases or particles that affect public health. And it is sourced freely from the sun, wind, sea waves, or hot gas underground.
In a previous interview, Legarda said: “The problem with coal is it’s a 25-year investment, and by overbuilding supply, we're locking up our next generation to dirty fuel. We should give our energy policy some flexibility to take advantage of breakthroughs in technology.”
Take for instance solar. A new Tesla battery for solar power is revolutionizing its storage capacity, long regarded as its Achilles’ heel.
“It's no longer a [question of whether] the technology is here or not. It's happening,” Muni stressed. “It's a matter of when do we want this technology to be mainstreamed here in the country.”
As technologies improve, renewable energy prices will continue to drop. According to GTM Research, global prices of solar PV systems will decrease by 40% by 2020.
Here in the Philippines, the government implemented the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) scheme in 2012 to shore up renewable energy production by giving developers assured rates for a 20-year period. These rates go lower as supplies go higher.
The DOE’s Renewable Energy Management Bureau earlier revealed that because of quick take-up of solar projects in the country, the FIT rate for solar has gone down to P8.68 ($0.18*) per kilowatt-hour from P9 ($0.19*) initially.
Even consumers can invest in renewable power and save money in the long run: net metering allows energy companies to buy back excess energy generated by installed solar panels at homes or offices.
The big picture
Given these scenarios, it’s difficult to grasp why the government approved more coal plants. Legarda cited a possible reason. “You can see there's a very strong lobby to retain and to sustain and to continue [the use of] fossil fuels, especially coal.”
Who’s leading the lobby? "I cannot mention names, but there are powerful people within the government, and I would even say, the Aquino administration, who are really trying to make a killing out of these coal-fired power plants,” Muni said. “They know that they are losing the markets in Europe and the US and Asia is now their new market.”
Various climate action groups are urging the government to roll out a concrete plan to significantly reduce our dependence on coal, starting with a moratorium on building new coal plants.
“[The government has to revoke] these permits. There has to be a review of how these permits were given,” Muni said.
Yet he also clarified that this should go hand in hand with a proper plan on how to transition to renewable energy. “You can’t just say ‘no (stop building coal plants).’ [You’ll also give] renewable energy a bad name if there will be loss of jobs in the fossil fuel industry.”
For her part, Legarda said the shift to renewable energy is not as daunting as it seems.
Countries such as Norway and Iceland now run on 100% renewable energy. The United States, India, and China have already committed to reduce their coal consumption drastically. Recently, Hawaii made headlines when it approved a legislation to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2045.
It is up to the country’s next leader to set the agenda.
Duterte previously said his climate change mitigation policy would consist of the purchase of state-of-the-art anti-pollution equipment and stricter enforcement of air pollution laws.
However, during the second leg of the presidential debates, he called the United Nations “hypocrites” for imposing mitigation requirements on small nations like the Philippines, while failing to sanction the world's biggest carbon dioxide emitters.
"The issue of climate, the issue of urgent climate finance, and climate action rest with our commander-in-chief because it is the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time, and for me, one of the biggest, if not the biggest national issue,” Legarda said. – Rappler.com