Coal and cancer: the case for renewable energy in the Philippines

Perhaps to the majority of the Filipino people, she will be remembered as a top-notch legislator; an overqualified, intelligent, and fiery — sometimes maybe overzealous — public servant. But for the environmentalists, Miriam Defensor-Santiago will be memorialized as a hard-working and progressive stalwart of the environment, relentless in her pro-earth campaigns.

As early as 2009, she had already penned into existence, sometimes in conjunction with her fellow senators, important pieces of legislation for the environment. Among these were the Climate Change Act, the Biofuels Act, and the Renewable Energy Act.

During the 2016 presidential elections, Defensor-Santiago was far and away the most environmentally conscious candidate, with a huge chunk of her campaign rooted firmly in evidence-based approaches to climate change, revising faulty legislation, and fervent support for the Renewable Energy Act.

In July 2016, Defensor-Santiago revealed to the public that she had a stage four malignancy in her left lung, a condition that would ultimately lead to her demise.

Environmental cancer

According to a 2014 report, the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development named lung cancer the top malignant killer in men and the third in women, behind only breast and cervical cancers.

Moreover, in a 2017 report on the burden of lung cancer, Morampudi et al calculated 50,977 disability adjusted life years for the Philippines. That’s 50,977 total years of healthy life lost because of lung cancer, 96 percent of which are premature deaths.

Despite being one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide, lung cancer remains notoriously difficult to treat, averaging a meager 18% 5-year survival rate. While this can balloon to just below 50% for the earliest and most benign types of lung cancer, it can also drop to an almost hopeless 1% for the most advanced and aggressive cases.

Cigarette smoking is the single most powerful risk factor for lung cancer, responsible for at least 80% of cases worldwide. However, because biological systems are almost never in isolation, cigarette smoke often combines with a plethora of other environmental factors, further magnifying the risk of lung cancer.

In an increasingly polluted planet, such factors are easier and easier to come by.

In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded, after a review of evidence from over a thousand scientific reports, that outdoor air pollution is a direct cause of lung cancer. This comes as no surprise because individual components of air pollution –such as dust, engine exhaust, and particulate matter –are already known carcinogens.

The same agency named agricultural emissions, transportation, and stationary power generation as among the leading sources of human-caused air pollution.

In a report by the American Cancer Society, Kurt Straif, PhD, member of the IARC, was quoted: “Outdoor air pollution is not only a major environmental risk to health in general, it is the most important environmental cancer killer due to the large number of people exposed.”

Dirty energy

The Philippines is a largely coal-consuming territory, and for a very simple reason: coal is dirt-cheap. Historically, the country has relied very heavily on natural coal reserves as a source of energy. In 2015, in fact, 44.5% of the Philippines was powered by coal according to the Department of Energy.

In the same year, the country totaled a whopping 8.17 million metric tons in coal production, only marginally lower than the 8.4-million metric ton output in the year prior. Still, in only 13 years, production levels have grown at least five-fold from annual averages of 1.5 million metric tons.

Impressive numbers fuel a behemoth industry.

Unfortunately, such impressive numbers also translate to impressive amounts of pollution being pumped into the atmosphere at similarly impressive rates.

According to the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, the Philippines pumped more than 110,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2015, up by almost 10,000 kilotons from its 2014 emission of around 103,000 kilotons.

That is equivalent to every single Filipino contributing 1.12 tons of carbon dioxide in 2015, greater than the 2014 per capita of 1.05 tons.

These values place the Philippines roughly in the league of countries like the Netherlands, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Notably, the flourishing economies of Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and Sweden rank way below the Philippines in carbon dioxide production.

Despite its current mammoth stature, coal shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. By the end of 2015, the Philippines’ natural reserves of coal, estimated to still be around 470 million metric tons, accounted for almost 20% of the country’s total coal resource potential.

In a 2014 report entitled the True Cost of Coal in the Philippines, Greenpeace also revealed 45 more coal-fired power plants in the pipeline. The additional 10,000 megawatts of will be at the cost of almost 75 more annual metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Challenging, but not impossible

Capitalizing on naturally replenishing sources — such as sunlight, geothermal heat, wind, and the ocean — is also a viable approach to energy generation. As it happens, renewable energy, as these are known, is leagues cleaner than coal.

Unfortunately, because of coal’s vice-grip on the energy industry, the road to renewables has been challenging, but not impossible.

Primarily because of lack of technical understanding, policy support, and large-scale infrastructure, renewable energy is struggling to find a solid foothold in many of the Philippines’ neighbors, including countries like Cambodia, Viet Nam, and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

But things are on the upswing. Cambodia, for instance, has a gaping niche in the energy market perfect for its enormous solar potential. The Vietnamese government, on the other hand, has centered its effort on the country’s depth of wind and biomass resources.

In this respect, the Philippines does not fall far behind. Backed by the National Renewal Energy Program, renewables have accounted for a sizable portion of the country’s energy mix in recent years. In 2016, renewables accounted for 10.9 million megawatt-hours of the power generated in Luzon alone, up more than a million from the 2015 output of 9.7 million megawatt-hours.

While its 16.4% share in Luzon’s energy mix is still dwarfed by coal’s 49.8%, renewable energy holds incredible potential in the Philippines, especially given the richness of its environment.

In fact, in 2014, growing increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of renewable energy in the country, Defensor-Santiago implored the administration to capitalize on the wealth of natural resources that the Philippines owns.

She was quoted in a December 2014 report by GMA News: “We have reason to pursue the ambition that a few years from now, the Philippines should be the world leader in geothermal energy, the largest producer of wind power, and the solar manufacturing hub in Southeast Asia.”

Healthy planet, healthy lungs

Southeast Asia — and the Philippines, in particular — is at the cusp of the clean energy revolution: political decisions and social shifts are all the more crucial, with the potential to advance the region into near-zero carbon emissions or regress it into a world coal and cancer.

For this reason, it is important that people not only be more open about cleaner alternative energy sources, but also demand it from their civil leaders — demand for cleaner air and more sustainable energy generation practices.

And, just as, if not more important, governments should listen to their people. Our planet, and our lungs, will be healthier for it.