Group airs grim health warnings over planned Luzon coal plants
MANILA, Philippines — Cases of premature deaths due to air pollution are feared to more than double in Metro Manila and in the provinces of La Union, Bataan, and Bulacan once the proposed coal-fired power plants in these areas and nearby places become operational, according to an international research group.
Adverse health impacts from pollutants emitted by these plants will also burden the country with at least P14 billion in health and economic costs yearly, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) reported.
The Crea report, which was released on Friday, looked at the emissions of coal-fired power plants across the Philippines. It highlighted how these plants, both existing and in the pipeline, would bring more pressure to the country’s already strained health and economic resources, especially as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 1,000 people may die from air pollution every year once the coal projects add a combined 9 gigawatts to the country’s existing 10-GW coal capacity, the Crea said.
A closer look at the impact of coal plant emissions per province showed that Luzon, which has the highest megawatt capacity of installed coal, would suffer at least 68 percent of the estimated premature deaths related to air pollution.
Premature deaths are those that could have been avoided with better air quality, said Isabella Suarez, the Philippine-based energy analyst from Crea.
With the proposed plants mostly situated in Luzon, its residents—especially those in populous cities and provinces—could experience even poorer air quality and health, the report said.
According to the World Health Organization, pollutants from coal-fired power plants, particularly the small yet deadly particulate matter 2.5, can travel over long distances and contribute to ambient air pollution.
Metro Manila, neighbors
“While many power plants are not built in close proximity to cities, their emissions nevertheless contribute to air pollution in these high-density areas, increasing the risk of death and illness from both acute and chronic diseases,” the report said.
Metro Manila, for instance, is projected to have a 109-percent increase in premature deaths should nearby proposed plants be switched on, with eight cases per million people rising to 16 cases.
Even with the absence of coal plants in the capital region, emissions from plants built in nearby provinces can reach the metropolis, the Crea said.
Air pollution-related deaths in the provinces of Bataan and Bulacan are also projected to double. Currently, Bataan hosts two coal plant projects with a combined 1.3 GW of power. Power capacity in the province is expected to rise to nearly 4 GW with other plants currently being built and reviewed.
The Crea report projected a similar spike in cases of premature deaths in La Union province, with a projected 211-percent rise in cases once the proposed 670-megawatt coal plant becomes operational.
Suarez said the group’s study showed that air pollution should not only be the concern of the community or the province where the coal plant will be built but of the entire country that will suffer from the detrimental effects of continued reliance on fossil fuel.
“Air pollution and climate change also have the same sources; they are two sides of the same problem,” she said in an interview. “It does not make sense that for a country that is vulnerable to climate change, we continue to have dependence on what is causing the problem.”
The Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a moratorium on endorsements for new greenfield coal plants, but it does not cover those in construction and with approved permits.
Environmental groups and clean energy advocates have urged the DOE to impose a clear moratorium that would cover all coal projects in the country and begin the transition to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.
The Crea report noted that based on the National Renewable Energy Zones identified by the government, many of the provinces at risk of having higher cases of air pollution-related deaths also had the potential for renewable energy.
For instance, the power stations in Zambales and Pangasinan provinces are found in renewable energy zones which have a total solar and wind potential of 1,067 MW and 1,040 MW, respectively.
Similarly, proposed projects in Camarines Norte and Quezon provinces are also within or nearby these identified zones for clean energy.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis had earlier reported that the DOE moratorium could attract some $30 billion in renewable energy investments.
Shift to renewable energy
With recent studies that also linked COVID-19 deaths and exposure to air pollution, renewable energy advocates said the country should seriously consider the urgent shift away from fossil fuel use.
“Air pollution does not respect political, administrative or geophysical boundaries,” Paeng Lopez, campaigner from Health Care Without Harm, told the Inquirer. “It means that no one is actually safe … With Metro Manila now a hotbed for COVID-19, if we further expose communities, especially the urban poor, it will make things worse.”
Added Lopez: “For decades now, it is becoming clear that the choice for us is to transition to renewable energy. Every day that we spend not acting on it or seriously transitioning, it is a wasted opportunity.”
Suarez said the projections of rising cases in the provinces emphasized the crucial role of local governments in ensuring the health and safety of their communities from coal pollution.
“Part of the process [in building coal plants] goes through our local governments,” she said. “There is an opportunity for them to say no to coal … It is a matter of them being proactive.” Local officials, Suarez said, could also take steps toward ensuring the continuous monitoring of emissions from all operating and proposed plants within their jurisdictions and ensure transparency in the process.
“[These impacts of coal pollution] should make big emitters and the people think about the urgency of the problem,” Suarez said. “We are dealing with a health crisis, but air pollution is also a health crisis in the making and has contributed to our vulnerabilities as a people to infectious diseases, including COVID-19.”
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