The first studies linking fossil fuels to global warming are over 120 years old. The fossil fuel lobby became well aware of the scale of the problem 50 years ago. Fast-forward to today, when we are in the midst of a climate crisis, not only do fossil fuels remain a mainstay in the global energy mix, but their share is growing along with renewable energy in the Philippines.
Despite the increased frequency and severity of floods, droughts, heatwaves, storms and marine life degradation – climate science is still being ignored. The Philippines is a prime example of how one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change impacts, is also one that continues to build its economy around fossil fuels.
Environmental issues plaguing the Philippines
Between 2001 and 2021, the Philippines lost 1.34Mha of tree cover, or about a 7.2% decrease in tree cover since 2000. It is among the countries that have seen the biggest deforestation in the past 40 years.
These environmental crises alone are enough to touch the nerve of young Filipinos, who are witnessing their country’s environment crumble from the front row.
However, on top of plastic pollution and deforestation, the Philippines is now facing what could be a potential existential climate crisis. Companies like San Miguel Corporation (SMC), enabled by local government policies, are further exacerbating the situation through massive LNG expansion projects.
Philippines LNG expansion plans – adding fuel to the climate change fire
The Philippines’ Climate Change Commission says it “acknowledges the need for climate justice.” It warns that climate change is “eroding hard-earned socio-economic gains” and estimates that it will cause a 6% annual GDP loss by 2100. Yet, the country considers natural gas, an extremely potent polluter, as a way out of its growing energy crisis. In reality, the fossil fuel is similar to a wrecking ball, rapidly swinging toward the country’s economy and environment.
By 2040, LNG will account for 40% of the country’s energy mix, up from 22% in 2020. The Philippines has the second-largest planned gas expansion in Southeast Asia, with 29.9 GW in development, including 27 gas power plants and 9 LNG terminals.
But the planned expansion could become a financial suicide – one that future generations will have to bear the brunt of. The new gas capacity poses a USD 14 billion risk in stranded assets, while just 29% of the new gas projects in the country are viable. It is also a guaranteed way to ensure a future of energy instability, unreliable supplies and geopolitical risk – as seen in Europe, in light of the Russia-Ukraine war. The volatile prices of natural gas on global markets will not help the Philippines, home to some of the highest electricity prices in Southeast Asia.
However, all these risks start fading away once we shine the spotlight on what LNG expansion projects can do to the climate and environment.
The Philippines is bouncing between the first and fourth position among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Between 2000 and 2019, it experienced 317 weather-related events, the highest result globally. Greenpeace notes that it will only worsen, as global temperatures continue to rise.
Global Climate Risk Map Ranking from 2000 to 2019, Source: Germanwatch
Filipinos’ livelihoods, quality of life and health at threat
The Philippines is at risk of unprecedented compound extreme events where multiple disasters coincide or occur one after another, increasing in severity. One potential example is heatwaves during a drought that can amplify the risk of forest fires, agricultural damages and biodiversity losses. Ecosystems on approximately 1 million hectares of grasslands in the Philippines are highly vulnerable to climate change. Farming is also at risk, with grain yields constantly decreasing. For example, the El Niño-associated drought during 2015–2016 affected over 413,000 Filipino farmers and sparked violent protests.
The Philippines is the 8th biggest fishing nation globally, with a yearly haul of about USD 2.5 billion. However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by the
2051–2060 period, the maximum fish catch in the country will decrease by as much as 50% compared to that of 2001–2010. Due to rising sea surface temperatures, the Philippines is at risk of a 9% decline in fisheries GDP.
Similar to heatwaves in other countries, rising temperatures will also impact working hours and productivity in the Philippines. Such events also risk unfolding a boom in diseases, including dengue, typhoid, malaria and cholera – a situation that the Philippines has experienced in the past.
According to a study by the World Resources Institute, the country is also likely to experience a “high degree” of water shortage by 2040.
Water Stress by Country: 2040, Source: World Resources Institute
Coastal areas and marine life damaged
Sea level rise in the Philippines is faster than the global average. Since 1901, it has risen 60 cm or over three times the global average of 19 cm, putting 64 coastal provinces and 13.6 million Filipinos at risk. Manila Bay is one of the most affected areas, with an 80 cm sea level rise from 1947 to 2012. Without additional climate action, it will rise by a further 50 cm by 2050 and
1.33 m by 2100.
Projected Sea Level Under Climate Central’s Worst-Case Scenario, Source: Climate Central
The rising sea level risks inducing higher storm surges caused by intense typhoons that, given the country’s archipelagic structure, can be devastating to coastal communities and their livelihoods. Furthermore, it can cause coastal erosion, shoreline retreat, wetland flooding, saltwater intrusion and habitat loss for fish, birds and plants.
In addition, climate change is projected to kill 98% of the corals in Southeast Asia by 2050. Between 2009 and 2010, El Niño caused a colossal bleaching event that killed up to 95% of corals in the Philippines.
San Miguel Corporation – the engine behind fossil fuel expansion in the Philippines and region
SMC Global Power, the power unit of SMC, has over 14 GW gas projects in the pipeline in Batangas, Negros Occidental, Metro Manila, Zamboanga and Leyte. Most of them are in coastal areas, including in Verde Island Passage – an area providing food to over 2 million people and a center of global shore-fish biodiversity, home to 60% of all known shore fish species and 400 coral species.
Location of Existing and Proposed Fossil Gas Plans and LNG Terminals Along the Coast and In the Waters of Batangas Bay, Source: CEED Philippines
Scientific studies reveal that LNG projects in such areas pose various threats to marine life and the environment. The projects further disturb the already dwindling coral cover, contaminate soil and water with toxic metals and make the affected areas unfit for fishing, while damaging marine life and more. Proofs of such implications already exist in waters around existing LNG plants in the coastal regions of the Philippines.
Top Post-Paris Developers of Gas-Fired Power Plants in Southeast Asia by Capacity, Source: CEED Philippines
Over the years, SMC has mastered the art of public deception by aggressively pushing an agenda that it is acting in the best interest of Filipinos. A prime example is its focus on sustainability, reflected also in its slogan – “Sustaining the Filipino.” Southeast Asia’s biggest fossil gas plant developer has also labeled itself as “sustainability champions” and asserts that it has “gone well beyond mitigating the problems of climate change.” The company claims its core value is “malasakit” which it describes as a “unique Filipino value of helping others without being prodded and without expecting anything in return.” It even claims to be doing better for the environment by “taking direct action to help” the cities, waters and forests in the Philippines.
Filipinos rise up – the fight against fossil fuel expansion
SMC proudly states that it builds “a better world by creating a better future for the next generation.” However, instead of making such bold claims, it would be better to let young Filipinos be the judge of that. Because, clearly, they have something to say.
Youth organizations and climate communities from all over the Philippines, including San Carlos and Negros, are already opposing LNG projects. Earlier this year, fisherfolk communities, organizations and environmentalists in Batangas conducted a fluvial demonstration, protesting against the risks the LNG projects in Verde Island Passage pose to marine life and livelihoods.
SMC states that it is “always first to respond during times of crisis.” While this is admirable, a significantly better approach would be to not fuel the crisis in the first place – something that should come naturally to “sustainability champions.”