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By Heherson T. Alvarez


Al Gore, former vice president of the United States and a leading global environmentalist, asserted during his recent visit to the country that the Philippines had the “moral authority” to take a leadership role in helping the world shift its heavy reliance on coal to renewable energy.

In the same breath Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, declared that it was “not smart” to build new coal plants.

The Philippine dilemma is that it cannot exercise any such moral authority. One horn of the dilemma is that while the Philippines is one of top three countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts, it is heavily reliant on coal-fired plants. Currently, the country has 17 operational coal plants, and it will continue to be dependent on coal as a primary energy source in the foreseeable future.

As the media and domestic environmental NGOs have pointed out, the Department of Energy has approved an extremely large number of new coal power plants over the last five years. Surprisingly, the numbers vary – from 21 to 29 coal plants approved by the DOE, many coming into commercial operations by 2020.

The other horn is the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions  (INDC)  pledge in the Paris Climate Agreement.  The Aquino administration has officially committed an INDC target of 70 percent greenhouse gas reduction below business-as-usual levels by 2030. Emissions cut will be made primarily in our energy, transport, forestry, waste, and industry sectors. 

However, this target is conditional on “the extent of financial resources, including technology development & transfer, and capacity building, that will be made available to the Philippines.” 

An independent international group, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), has denigrated   this target with a low “medium” rating. A medium rating is between “Inadequate” and “Sufficient.” CAT considers the Philippine commitments “at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution. This means (that the Philippine INDC) is not consistent with limiting warming to below 2 degree Centigrade unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort.”

Reconciling our nationally determined contributions with the goals and actions of DOE will severely tax our national ingenuity. Can we summon the necessary political and economic statesmanship to make a fair if not an ambitious contribution to the global aim of significantly reducing emissions.

This is a daunting and complex challenge in an era of global discontinuity. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines is one of the lowest carbon emitters. With a population of some 103 million Filipinos, we produce only some 0.87 metric tons of carbon emissions per capita. 

For comparison, Thailand, with a population of  67.5 million, has  4.45 metric tons per capita; Indonesia, with a population over 250 million, emits some 1.80 metric tons; and Vietnam, with a population  approaching 94 million,  spews  1.73 metric tons.

To rise to the challenge of the Paris agreement, our political and economic leaders must begin to undertake effective capacity building. What is the Philippine work plan to enhance capacity building? What are the capacity gaps and needs that must be resolved in order to integrate climate strategies into our developmental plans and investment priorities?

First, from a political standpoint, if we are to take our INDC seriously, we must be prepared to travel a steep, long-term low-carbon   path that   will govern Philippine basic climate policy over the next three administrations. This   puts immense pressures on successive Filipino leaders to initiate or complete multiple, far-sighted, and large-scale projects to combat climate change and upgrade Philippine resiliency over the next 34 years.  

The low-carbon program can be an essential strategy for stimulating the economy, creating more jobs, and moving us rapidly to a clean energy future. A key part of this program is the investment-intensive and far-reaching river basin development, which is both mitigation and adaptation in nature.  A total of 18 river basins is targeted for development   under a multi-faceted, long-term plan, starting with the Jalaur River in Iloilo and the Cagayan River in northern Luzon, our largest and longest river.

Second, a low-carbon path must be made attractive to Philippine business and industry.  Congress must start amending the EPIRA law and legislate a rising tax structure on coal imports and carbon emissions. To make coal and fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society, pollution must be made an expense rather than an externality, or a side effect of industrial activity.

With respect to EPIRA, it foisted an enormous price increase in generation cost in Meralco’s mega-franchise area, which is our country’s industrial and commercial hub. The increase of P4.15 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) represents billions of pesos in additional monthly billing to Meralco’s five million customers. EPIRA has not lowered power costs or made power costs predictable. This has seriously undermined Philippine competitiveness since the high cost of electricity is a barrier to manufacturing and other economic sectors.

For far too long, governments across the globe have been forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels by 400 to 500 billion dollars per year, thereby encouraging extraction of coal and fossil fuels that we are seeking to eliminate. Despite remarkable strides in renewable-energy technologies, the transition from fossils fuels to clean energy sources is being blocked by cheaper market prices of coal and oil – prices that do not include the costs of carbon pollution.

A well graduated carbon tax will re-shape consumption, improve efficiency and competitiveness in the whole range of energy usage, and accelerate investments in our renewable energy sector.

Third, our political leaders and economic managers should engineer a combined low-carbon path and a tax structure on emissions. This will send the right signals to the international community engaged in technological and financial support systems. In addition to the pledges of international financial institutions, the Paris agreement makes clear that developed countries will continue to provide and mobilize funds to support developing countries, with developed countries agreeing to continue their 2020 commitment of mobilizing $100 billion a year, at least until 2025.

The Philippines should be able to tap this fund for a vital component of our NDC -- reforestation.  At least 80% of our original forest cover have been lost, dating from the 16th century. The UN FAO   in 2003   placed our rate of deforestation at 1.4% annually from 1990 to 2000 (or 80,000 hectares), giving the country the thinnest forest cover in Southeast Asia.

To reverse this trend, we should expand the National Greening Program (NGP) over the next two decades. The current massive, 5-year forest rehabilitation program was aimed at growing 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 mllion hectares of degraded or denuded areas. This expansion of forest area embraces mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs development.

Fourth, we must hasten development of our alternative energy sources. In the area of clean, renewable energy, our National Renewable Energy Program (NREP) has set exceptional targets up to 2030, on an unprecedented scale and timeframe. Based on our power generation mix in 2013, the Philippines derived about 26% of its power requirement from renewable energy, principally from hydropower and geothermal plants. 

Today’s available renewable energy sources and their energy potentials are wind power estimated at 76,000 megawatts (MW), hydropower at 10,500 MW, geothermal at 1,200 MW, ocean energy at 170,000 MW, biomass (bagasse) at 236 MW, and solar energy at  an  average   161.7 watts per square meter, with a range of 128 to 203 watts per square meter  per day. In addition, we have vast untapped potential of micro-hydropower. Total potential power that can be tapped from all these resources will be limited only by our ingenuity to invest in them.

In complying with the Paris agreement, we have some significant headstart. The Philippines has long been engaged in a wide variety of mitigation and adaptation programs, ranging from solid waste management, rainforest conservation and wildlife protection to a ban on unregulated use of fish aggregating devices and the establishment of marine zones to protect our fishery and seabed resources.

To these we have added other crucial, on-going responses to climate change. These include air pollution reduction in the transport sector, new standards and technologies in the building sector, and a long-term education and information campaign at the grassroots level with interfaith leaders. 

The urgent task of the new political leadership starting this July is to crystallize the Filipino’s vision of economic and social transformation toward a low-carbon and more resilient society. For by the end of this year, our nationally determined contributions (NDC) must harden into a national commitment under the Paris accord. This will likely require the Philippines to invest over 1.5 percent of its annual GDP in mitigation and adaptation programs over the next three decades.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is to provide the steady, clear-headed, courageous, and climate-smart leadership from this day onward. 


(Heherson T. Alvarez convened the First Asia-Pacific Conference on Climate Change in Manila in February 1995.  Currently chair of the Advisory Board of the Climate Institute based in Washington, D.C., he served as chair of the Senate Committee on Environment for 10 years during his tenure in the Philippines Senate, and successfully negotiated with oil multinationals to introduce unleaded gasoline in the domestic market. He crafted the Philippines’ National Framework Strategy on Climate Change.)