In United Nations hearings into climate change, the Philippines, wracked by increasingly violent weather events, has become the poster child for environmentalists concerned that both violent storms and rising waters pose an existential threat to the country’s 7,100 islands.
Since the super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda smashed into the islands of Leyte and Samar, killing at least 6,300 people in November of 2013, Philippine representatives to international climate change conferences have become prominent proponents of reducing fossil fuel emissions, one of the world’s top sources of carbon emissions.
But the Philippines has a dilemma as its economy soars upward along with its expanding population, now over 100 million people. Two weeks ago, energy officials issued environmental compliance certificates for 21 new coal-fired plants to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. Some 40 percent of the country’s energy needs are now provided by coal.
Greenpeace said in a 2014 report that at least 45 new coal-fired plants would become operational by 2020, increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 64.4 million to 79.8 million metric tons a year. And, although the main island of Luzon, where most of the country’s industry is centered, is relatively safe from brownouts, the farther you get from Manila, the more likely that brownouts will be a way of life.
To some extent, the country is stuck when it comes to renewables or clean energy production from gas. It doesn’t have the technology or the sophistication to operate nuclear plants. Wind is fickle and not a particularly attractive investment for private enterprise without subsidies, which are provided in many developed countries. Gas is far more expensive than coal, the bulk of which both must be imported, a strain on the fiscal budget.
Geothermal has considerable potential but like wind is an investment risk by private enterprise. With hydropower, the two comprise 5,275 megawatts, or about 30 percent of total usable power. While national energy capacity is more than 16,000 megawatts, only about 13,000 are available at any given time, given plant maintenance, breakdowns, etc.
In 1973, then-President Ferdinand Marcos commissioned a nuclear plant in response to the global oil crisis and an embargo by Middle-East producing states. Construction began in 1979, only to stop when a safety inquiry revealed more than 4,000 defects. The plant, built on the Bataan Peninsula north of Manila, was sited near major earthquake fault lines and close to Mount Pinatubo, which subsequently exploded in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century. Costs soared to US$2.3 billion. It was never made operational and it remains to this day a monument to folly and endemic corruption.