Philippines battles climate dilemma

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Kate Stephens/BBC

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The Philippines is regarded as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change

A developing country dubbed one of the most vulnerable to climate change has confirmed controversial plans for more coal-fired power stations.

The president of the Philippines has told the BBC the new coal plants are needed to meet demands for energy.

This comes despite environmental groups and some leading Filipino politicians arguing that coal is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

Coal emits more greenhouse gas than any other fossil fuel.

And climate scientists have long concluded that burning more coal will undermine efforts to limit the rise in temperatures.

But many developing countries, facing rapid increases in population and surging economic growth, see coal as a relatively cheap option, which is why the Philippines is planning a total of 23 new coal plants.

China, India and other fast-growing Asian economies also have plans for hundreds of new coal power stations.

The dilemma of how developing countries should generate electricity – and whether they should follow the path of the nations which industrialised first and became rich using coal – will loom large at the UN summit on climate change in Paris starting next week.

For the Philippines, coal currently generates about 42% of the country’s electricity, with the rest coming from locally-sourced natural gas and renewables, but coal’s share could potentially rise to about 70% in a few decades, according to some projections.

Speaking to the BBC, President Benigno Aquino said that reducing the use of coal in favour of gas, a popular choice for many, was not an option because of a lack of gas-importing facilities.

And he said that while the Philippines had increased the share of renewables, costs had limited their appeal until recently.

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Kate Stephens/BBC

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Innovative modes of transport may be needed as the impacts of climate change bite

With solar, he said, “the price was considered too high so that it would bring up all of the electricity rates which would make us not competitive and will hamper the growth.”

His concern is that higher power prices would “raise a hue and cry from our people about very high electricity rates which are at points in time the highest in the region”.

The costs of solar had now fallen, Mr Aquino said, but that still left the problem of the intermittent nature of renewables, which he then chose to spell out.

“For instance, if we go to wind, are the wind turbines really working or not? Solar will get affected by cloudy conditions like this.”

He was speaking under the dark clouds of Typhoon Koppu, known as Lando in the Philippines, which struck last month killing dozens of people and causing widespread flooding.

The president added: “Wave action is not yet developed sufficiently to be viable for the product mix.

“So what we’re trying to do is ensure that we have the most modern coal plants that are in existence.”

The push for more coal, in the face of strenuous objections, has dismayed many leading figures who say that there are many less-polluting alternatives.

Senator Loren Legarda, who chairs the country’s Senate Finance Committee and has pushed through new legislation on climate change and energy, told me that “doing coal is a crime”.

“It’s a crime against humanity, it’s just bad. It pollutes the already vulnerable environment, and coal kills – it kills our air, it kills our biodiversity.

“Coal is never an option, coal is not cheap. We must put in the negative effect of the health of the people, the negative effect on biodiversity, the bad effect on the environment , the bad effect on business.”

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Kate Stephens/BBC

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Senator Legarda says the global trend is to move away from coal, but does not advocate closing existing plants

Senator Legarda does not advocate closing down existing coal-burning power stations but says the global trend is to move away from coal and that her country should be part of that movement, particularly since its 98 million people are particularly vulnerable to a potential scenario of higher temperatures and more violent typhoons.

“Europe is downscaling on coal, many countries are downscaling on coal so why are we approving coal? It does not make sense. We are victims of climate change and we want to exacerbate it? We want to worsen the situation by doing more coal? It does not make sense.”

Meanwhile, amid the debate over energy in the Philippines, there are efforts to help people cope with the kind of future disasters that may become more intense with climate change.

The charity Save the Children is providing advice to schools on how to teach children to be more aware of the possible dangers.

At the school in the village of San Augustin, in the flood-prone province of Bulacan on the central island of Luzon, pupils are given regular training drills in how to stay safe in situations such as flash floods.

According to one of the charity’s organisers, Lourdes Pambid: “People are really getting to see the effects of these changes in the climate and they’re also paying attention to these things.”

She said the worry was that the next generation would grow up into a very different world.

“For children, it’s losing their homes and even the type of their livelihoods.

“In Bulacan, it used to be a farming area and then the floods came in and some have shifted to fish farming but then conditions became worse and they had to give that up, they had to leave fishing.

“It could get worse if nobody does anything to address this situation so that’s why the kids, the local government units, the government officials should be doing something about it.”

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