THE shift away from coal is gaining momentum in recent weeks. At the global level, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan collectively agreed to halt funding of coal projects by the end of 2021, and phase out further support for dirty energy. The International Energy Agency recently released the world's first comprehensive roadmap to a net-zero energy system by 2050, which includes a call for no further investments in new fossil fuel facilities.
This development is also slowly but surely taking effect in the Philippines. Banks such as BPI and RCBC are announcing their plans to phase out coal from their loans and portfolios within the next few decades. Along with a coal moratorium issued by the Department of Energy last October and the beginning of the full implementation of the Renewable Energy Act after 12 years, the stage is seemingly set for a boom of clean energy in the country.
However, a new roadblock is emerging for building the Philippines's energy-secure future: the push for the growth of natural gas.
There is currently lobbying in both houses of Congress for the development of the natural gas industry in two phases: midstream, or the transportation, storage, and wholesale marketing of said fuel; and downstream, which involves its processing, purifying, and selling.
The lack of focus on the upstream phase, or exploration and extraction of local sources of natural gas, implies that the current strategy is to rely on imports to enhance the national energy supply. Similar to coal, another fossil fuel, this set-up could result to local electricity rates being vulnerable to volatile prices at the international market. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why Filipinos shoulder the second highest electricity rate in Asia.
The Covid-19 pandemic has already exposed the flaws of the current baseload-centric system. Issues such as grid inflexibility, overdependence on soon-to-be-outdated dirty energy, and a failure to account for externalities such as the social costs of pollution on the true cost of coal are not addressed by the bills.
Another reason for pushing for natural gas is due to its lower emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than coal, which is beneficial for addressing the climate crisis. As a result, its proponents would view it as a necessary "bridging fuel," or a stopgap during the transition from coal to renewable energy (RE).
However, this strategy poses significant problems. Firstly, natural gas still emits more GHGs than any renewable energy source. The World Meteorological Organization reports that global warming could breach 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next five years. This places the Philippines, one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, in even more potential harm. In an era when climate change impacts become more extreme with each passing year, avoiding further emissions should be a priority for policymakers.
Secondly, the Congressional bills as currently written could result in the nation being in prolonged dependence on fossil fuels, which would affect sustainable development. Instead of being a bridging fuel until the further development of the RE industry, there is a lack of a phase-out plan or presence of policies that would prevent the growth of natural gas to the point of hindering RE development.
Without measures such as establishing a maximum capacity for natural gas in the country's energy mix, the needed investments and other modes of support for finally fully enforcing the RE Act after a decade-long delay would instead be diverted to natural gas. A longer dependence on fossil fuels, whether it is coal or natural gas, would result in a more costly transition decades from now than if done more urgently.
What to do
In its first Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a self-determined pledge to help achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the Philippines aims to reduce its GHG emissions by 75 percent by 2030. However, there was no stated decarbonization pathway to achieve this target, let alone align with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Considering this commitment is made with the goals of achieving energy security and sustainable development, the national government must establish targets and timelines for phasing outpower plants, terminals, and other facilities related to natural gas. Doing so would discourage energy developers from simply switching their focus from coal to natural gas, and finally initiate the just transition to RE that is necessary for national sustainable development.
This must be complemented by an urgent phase-out of coal, which could be achieved through measures such as a carbon tax to disincentivize both fossil fuels and strengthening the existing coal moratorium to prevent new coal plants from being built.
Furthermore, the Department of Energy must lead the coordination among agencies, with inputs from non-government actors, to ensure that all plans and policies related to the energy sector are aligned with the imperative of climate action.
If the Philippine government truly wants to bring its citizens closer to sustainability, it must avoid side-stepping through committing to natural gas. Instead, Filipinos need it to lead in taking steps forward towards a healthier and more secure future, fueled by RE.
John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been a citizen journalist since 2016.