Empty Gestures

40 countries signed to stay away from coal during COP26. The Philippines, however refrained from promising to phase out coal-fired plants. Photo c/o Rappler

During the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, 40 countries signed to stay away from dirty coal.

However, local reports noted that the Philippines refrained from committing to phase out coal-fired power plants.

The agreement had four goals. The first is to rapidly scale the deployment of clean power generation. Second is to phase out coal power by 2030 for advanced economies and 2040 for the rest of the world. The third is to end all investments in new coal power generation both domestically and internally. Fourth is to make a just transition that benefits communities and workers.

However, as reports stressed not all signatories committed to all of the four mentioned goals. Our Energy Secretary who signed on behalf of the Philippines only endorsed goals/clauses one and four. 

A report by Manila Bulletin on this issue said that the Energy Department’s formal correspondence to the chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy-Manila, who solicited the Philippine’s support to the “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement”, only said that the country only supported calls for an energy transition that will primarily be driven by more renewable energy installation and addition of energy efficiency technologies.

The said correspondence was notably silent on whether the Philippines will pull the plug on coal-fired power generation. The letter of the energy secretary instead demanded that climate justice from industrialized countries that are spewing higher scale carbon emissions. “We would like to reiterate the energy sector’s call for climate justice given that the Philippines is not a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) but bear the worsening impacts of climate change,” Energy Alfonso Cusi in the letter said.

He also stressed that the country’s foremost agenda is energy security since “energy transition comes as a means to improve the lives of our people and for our country’s economic development.”

Perhaps, we should not be surprised at our government’s lack of commitment to phasing out coal completely.

During the forum on national energy security sponsored by UP Vanguard Inc. last October, most of the panelists agreed that it may not be feasible for the Philippines or the rest of the world to completely phase out coal by 2040. Mr. Gil Quinoñes the newly minted CEO of Commonwealth Edison Company, Chicago’s primary utility company said that it is more doable to achieve 80% electrification by renewable energy.

However, some of the panelists also slammed the government’s inaction in ensuring swift energy transition. One of our panelists, former Energy Undersecretary Atty. Jay Layug stressed that there has been a major decline in new renewable energy capacity addition in the last five years. He noted that there have only been 800 megawatts (MW) RE new cavity out of the 4930 MW capacity added in the last five years while from years 2010 to 2016, renewables contributed roughly 1,500 MW out of the 5180 MW of the total added capacity.

Atty Layug stressed that the Philippines cannot afford a technology-neutral policy and instead pave the way for a faster transition to clean energy.

To add to these thoughts, it seems to me that the drive for energy security is being used as an excuse for our lack of commitment to adopting more renewable energy in our power mix. Are we really achieving energy security by insisting on our reliance on fossil fuel power?

As I have discussed in a previous post, there are various definitions of energy security. For one, the Internal Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price.” I have argued that energy security is difficult to define. However, I can easily tell you is that the Philippines is facing multiple risks when it comes to energy security.

Our reliance on imported coal is a source of insecurity. As I have mentioned, at the beginning of the pandemic my fear was that Indonesia, our major source of coal could close its border, which means we can’t import coal from them. 

Relying on imports also means that consumers are affected by global supply issues and pricing. Currently, oil prices are going up. Data from Energy Department showed that diesel prices have gone by Php18.10 per liter since the start of 2021 So, are we really heading towards energy security when we remain reliant on coal and oil?

If we are to follow IEA’s definition, then we are not achieving energy security as our power rates remain expensive especially when global prices go up.

I agree that we cannot fully phase out coal in the next 20 years, but the government has been quite slow in its push for renewables. This is evidenced by the downward revision of the share of renewables in the Philippine Energy Plan (PEP) 2020-2040. Recently, the Energy Department released its amended PEP 2020- 2020, which set a target of 50% renewable share in the power mix by 2040. In contrast, its previous PEP 2018-2040 set the target to a 54 % share of the power mix.

The Department did not explain why it changed its target. It’s quite baffling especially since it had already declared a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants last year.

Naturally, DOEs lack of commitment to end financing for coal or to end coal during COP 26 has been met with strong criticisms. Greenpeace Philippines Campaigner, Khevin You said that the organization is denouncing in “the strongest possible terms the Philippine government’s shameless climate hypocrisy and its lack of political will to end coal use and chart a decisive path away from dependence on fossil fuels.”

Likewise, the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED) said the government’s commitments are just an “empty gesture.” 

I again go back to what our panelists said in the UPVI forum. We have enough laws and we are not running of ideas on how fast we can transition to renewable energy but what we need is consistency in policy enforcement. We need political will and decisiveness in implementing laws. We need strong leadership to ensure a fast clean energy transition. Indeed, we don’t need empty gestures.