Philippines struggles to kick the coal habit

A country on the frontline of climate change is unable to shake off its dependence on dirty energy


Batangas is a small and scrappy port city on the southern edge of Luzon, around 100 kilometres from the Philippines’ capital, Manila. The narrow coastal road is still strewn with sun-faded election posters, leftover from May’s vote, as it winds its way from the vast mega-mall at the centre of town to the outlying barangays – districts – that are built along the steep cliffs overlooking the Verde Island Passage.

One of those barangays, Simlong, is the unlikely epicentre of a battle for the soul of the Philippines’ economic development. Already in the shadow of the chimneys of two chemical facilities — one making plastic for packaging, the other a naptha cracking plant — the community has watched as a new patch of land is cleared to make way for a coal-fired power station, as national and regional politicians seesaw between the long-term necessity of ‘decarbonising’ the country’s growth, and embracing the short-term allure of cheap and dirty energy.

“We have enough problems,” says Mila Balares, in her house a few hundred metres from the chemical plants. She has been documenting the flares from the chimneys, which were supposed to have stopped, but still belch fire and ash over Simlong every few weeks. “The coal plant will just add more.”

The jobs are not here, the money is not here. But the smell is here, the noise is here, the traffic is here

While her husband works under the bonnet of a chrome jeepney behind her, she runs through a long list of grievances against the chemical company, JG Summit, which is also due to build the coal power station. Local residents have complained of respiratory difficulties; contaminated water in the bay has caused fish stocks to plummet, but the jobs have not been created to replace the lost livelihoods. If it gets much worse, Balares fears she might have to leave. “They’re killing us softly,” she says.

As one Simlong resident waiting under the shade of a roadside shop, who gave his name as ‘Sonny’, put it: “The jobs are not here, the money is not here. But the smell is here, the noise is here, the traffic is here.”

JG Summit did not respond to a request for comment.

The Philippines’ challenge is that of so much of the developing world – that it needs to decouple its growth from carbon emissions without slowing down its economy, which has been among the fastest-growing in the world over the past few years. Successive governments have derived much of their political legitimacy from their ability to drive economic growth and improve living standards. That means cheap electricity, both for consumers and for businesses. The Philippines already has 17 coal-fired power stations in operation, and around 30 more are planned or already under construction.

The rush for coal has only been exacerbated by a slump in prices, as Europe, the US – even China – start to scale down their use. More than ever, cheap and abundant coal is a quick fix for the energy needs of a growing economy.

However, the downsides of such dirty growth are abundantly clear. The Philippines has been on the frontline of climate change for years, battered by typhoons of increasing intensity and gripped, now, by a drought. Dire air quality in the congested streets of its cities has contributed to a rising incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. This burden of climate change and pollution falls disproportionately on the poor.

Supporters of the policy in the Philippines say that much of the development will be so-called ‘clean coal’ – a phrase met with considerable scepticism amongst campaigners against fossil fuels.Philippines_3

Corruption

On June 22, the plant was approved by the Batangas City Council. For local campaigners, it is not only that the coal plants are happening, but the way that they are being approved that is maddening.

Until her term ended in June, Kristina Balmes was a city councillor in Batangas. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in May. There is a simple driver behind the rush to get the new power station off the ground in the city, she says. “Money.”

Public sector corruption is endemic in the Philippines, and at the local level, institutions are weak and underfunded. The devolution of power to local governments means that what happens at the municipal or barangay level does not necessarily reflect national policy. For corrupt companies, the lower down the political scale they go, the easier it is to buy influence.

It’s not enough to do rallies, it’s not enough to do information campaigns or legal challenges. You have to do something tangible that people can hold onto

That helps otherwise contentious projects breeze through planning, and break environmental standards with relative impunity. In Batangas, local laws mean that companies violating clean air standards can be fined a maximum of 5,000 pesos (£75; $108; €96), which is barely a disincentive.

Local opposition is, publicly at least, muted, because of the close relationship between local politics and business. Raising your head above the parapet can be risky, while for many, the choice between no job or a job at a coal plant is barely a choice at all.

“When you have no food on the table, and your only choice is to work for that company, you’re going to be blinded by it,” Balmes says. This has been a huge problem for environmental campaigners, who are often portrayed as enemies of progress, holding back investments that can create jobs and prosperity.

“It’s not enough to do rallies, it’s not enough to do information campaigns or legal challenges. You have to do something tangible that people can hold onto,” she says. “That’s the only way we can influence them to come to our side.”

In that context, it has been tough to get national politicians to support the campaign. The incoming governor of Batangas, the veteran independent politician Hermilando Ingco Mandanas, told Raconteur that he supports a complete moratorium on new coal plants in the region. However, the region’s congressman and his wife, Batangas City’s new mayor, have both indicated that they are in favour of coal.

At some point the president is going to get into conflict with the existing elites. Some of the biggest families and conglomerates in Metro Manila have their investments into these kinds of power plants, into mining

The new national president, Rodrigo Duterte, had made few consistent statements on the issue, but in late June he offered environmental activist Gina Lopez to the Department of Environment and National Resources – an opponent both of mining and coal power.

Whether the appointment of Lopez signals that the Duterte administration wants to move away from coal, depends on the compromises that the new president has to make as his outsider political agenda butts up against the existing elites in the Philippines, according to Bob Herrera-Lim, a Filipino political analyst and managing director of Teneo Intelligence.

“I’d say yes, Duterte wants a more environmentally sustainable mining sector, and a more environmentally responsible power generation sector,” Herrera-Lim says. “But at the same time… at some point he’s going to get into conflict with the existing elites. Some of the biggest families and conglomerates in Metro Manila have their investments into these kinds of power [plants], into mining.”

Father Dakila Ramos, a leading figure in Batangas' fight against coal
Father Dakila Ramos, a leading figure in Batangas’ fight against coal

Holy backing

In Batangas, Balmes does have the backing of a higher power. The Catholic Church – a potent political force in the Philippines – has taken up the fight, inspired by a 2015 papal encyclical, Laudato Si, which called for a worldwide effort to preserve and protect the environment.

In the Most Holy Trinity church in Batangas, parish priest Father Dakila Ramos, a cheerful, diminutive figure in flowing white, has held prayer rallies opposing the development. He talks in blissful awe about the ‘paradise’ of the region, from its green mountains to the unique marine ecosystem of the Verde Island Passage, and says corruption and greed the driving force behind its destruction.

“Many people want an easy path. They want an instant solution to every problem. If you are a fisherman or a farmer, you need to work hard and you need to wait. But this culture of instant money, that is the problem,” he says. “The Catholic Church supports the economic uplift of the people. We are not against development. But we are against the destruction of God’s given nature. We cannot tolerate development at the expense of the destruction of the livelihoods of the people.”

In Barangay Pinamucan, two communities down the road from Simlong, councillor Lina Abalos, short, bespectacled and a self-professed ‘fighter’ is already preparing for what happens if their combined efforts fail, and the coal plant is commissioned. The local ecology has already been devastated by industrial development. Trees have been cleared, a stream filled in, leading to flooding whenever it rains. Looking at hillsides stripped of trees, she wonders what happened to all of the birds that used to live there. “If we lose our community, we will be scattered like birds,” she says.

Her community is on the main road between the port and Simlong, meaning that it will inevitably suffer as construction traffic, then the coal itself is lugged up the hill to the furnaces. No amount of money would change her mind, she says. The power plant has to be stopped.

She is happy to keep negotiating, to keep talking, she says. If that does not work, she might urge direct action.

“We are trying to talk in a nice way, to have a very nice dialogue. But if they also continue in spite of our refusal, then I will tell my people ‘let’s go’,” she says with a wicked laugh. “I will throw some nails on the road.”