The Philippines’ addiction to dirty coal and dirty politics

Mong Palatino

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Disaster risk reduction and preparedness will be rendered meaningless if coal addiction is not eliminated

If there is a country that needs to aggressively fight climate injustice, it must be the Philippines. Its global carbon emissions are minimal yet it is highly vulnerable to the harsh impact of extreme weather events. This was most vividly demonstrated by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) which wrought havoc in central Philippines. 

Yolanda reminded the world that the failure to reduce carbon emissions at the global level creates massive catastrophes in small island nations like the Philippines. Haiyan also exposed some of the country’s structural weaknesses such as widespread poverty in the provinces, inept bureaucracy, and deteriorating environment. For many Filipinos, Haiyan was a clear proof about the need to quickly improve disaster risk management and the strict enforcement of environmental laws. 

‘Dirty legacy’

But the big elephant in the ground zero of Haiyan is coal. Looking back, it seems there was no sustained discussion in the mainstream media about the dirty legacy of coal. Media commentators spoke bluntly about the slow government relief but they failed to link coal and fossil fuels in general with Yolanda. The public was informed about disaster preparation but not about coal pollution. This is quite disappointing considering that coal is the single biggest contributor to global carbon emissions.

Climate change cannot be explained without mentioning coal. And in recent years, the Philippines has become more dependent on coal in generating its power supply. The Aquino government is guilty of increasing the number of coal projects across the country – 17 ongoing construction of coal plants and 10 slated for expansion. In his 2012 state of the nation address, Aquino singled out the oppositors of the Subic coal plant project for blocking the progress of the local economy.  

The government’s addiction to coal reflects several fundamental wrongs in governance: Dirty development model (focus on extractive activities), contradictory laws (Mining Act vis-a-vis total log ban), and privatized energy sector. The Philippines pioneered renewable energy legislation in the region but the government abandoned power generation and left it in the hands of a few favored family tycoons. Naturally, the latter preferred cheap but dirty coal over renewable sources which are abundant in the country.  

Disaster risk reduction and preparedness would be rendered meaningless if coal addiction is not eliminated. The ‘No Build Zone’ policy is presented as if coastal habitats pose the greatest danger to the lives of our people in the Visayas. What about large-scale mining, expanding plantations, and coal pollution?

Coal policies should make us more aware of the other manifestations of climate injustice. In the Philippines, it is reflected in the suffering of poor farmers and fisherfolk who have to survive the adverse impact of coal projects on their health and livelihood. It is evident too in the displacement of marginalized communities caused by development aggression and pollutive industries. Worse, the poor are often blamed for choosing to settle in critical habitats and high-risk areas. 

Most affected

The poor are more vulnerable to the deadly impact of climate change yet they are either asked to make the greater sacrifice or castigated for being irresponsible residents. Is this not climate injustice too? 

PEOPLE POWER. Environmental activists participate in the Power Shift movement. Photo from #SulongPH

The continuing coal addiction of our money-hungry politicians despite the documented negative impact of coal plants highlights the relevance of strong political actions as we battle climate change.

Laws are important, and we need more meaningful green policies, but they lose value if corrupt bureaucrats won’t implement them.

Today, saving the planet is a popular message which enjoins everybody to adopt a green lifestyle. But focusing too much on individual actions, however heroic, would restrict our efforts to check the abuses committed by those in power. A concerned citizen should not be contented with merely planting a tree. He or she must also join others in stopping a politician from signing a permit that would allow large-scale mining in a critical watershed. 

Coal pollution can be stopped by directly engaging the proponents of coal. We need an active grassroots to oppose the entry of coal in our communities. The green constituency must target local and national policymakers.

The champions of renewable energy must counter the poisonous propaganda of the coal industry. In other words, People Power politics is the best antidote to coal politics. Political solutions are needed to solve environmental problems.  

The rise of coal in a disaster-prone nation is an issue of governance. It is dirty politics at its worst. After Haiyan, it is already insane to stick with coal as if there’s no other alternative. The struggle for climate justice, therefore, is not separate from the people’s campaign for genuine democracy and good governance. – 

Mong Palatino was the pioneer youth representative from the Kabataan Partylist in Congress and is the current chairperson of BAYAN Metro Manila. He was a keynote speaker in the Power Shift Pilipinas (PSPH), a national youth-led climate convergence held in the University of San Carlos in Cebu last March 26 to 29.

PSPH was organized by the AGHAM Youth, Asia-Pacific Research Network (APRN), Redraw the Line, Cordillera Youth Network for Global Change, the Climate Reality Project, Kalikasan PNE, Visayas Coalition for the Ecology, Pilipinas and the Network Opposed to Coal Power Plants in Davao. It was supported by its partners, the Farmers Development Center (FARDEC), Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE), and Global Green Grants Fund. Rappler’s MovePH was the event’s media partner.

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