Rodrigo Duterte has called on developed countries to take “deep and drastic cuts” in carbon emissions to avoid global warming, blaming wealthier states for the series of natural disasters that left a trail of death and destruction in the Philippines.

In the last three weeks, a string of weather disturbances battered the main island of Luzon, devastating the country’s rice-producing regions in Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon as farmlands were submerged in floods not seen in more than four decades

Climate experts warn the Philippines has not seen the last of these catastrophic storms. As the Pacific Ocean gets warmer, it creates  more violent tropical cyclones.

At the virtual gathering of Southeast Asian leaders, Duterte demanded “climate justice from those most responsible for this existential challenge we face today.”

An average of 20 typhoons visit the country every year, affecting millions of Filipinos as billions of pesos worth of crops, infrastructure and property are damaged or destroyed.

“Developed countries must lead in deep and drastic cuts in carbon emissions,” he said. “They must act now, or it would be too late. This is a moral responsibility from which there should be no escape.”

The inaction of these countries would be a “great injustice” to people of more vulnerable countries “who bear the brunt of the adverse consequences of their past actions and present inactions.”

But developed countries and some powerful states, like China, should not be blamed solely for the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Duterte himself should also practice what he preaches as early in his term, he threatened not to honor the government’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change agreement, taking cue from US President Donald Trump who withdrew from the landmark deal.

He argued that the country was contributing less than 1 percent to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He reluctantly signed in 2017 the instrument of accession, ratifying the climate change deal based on the recommendation of his Cabinet.

However, there is so much work to be done as more investments in coal-fired plants continue to flow with the energy secretary offering two tenders for coal plants on the main island of Luzon just this month.

Before Duterte rose to power in 2016, there were 12 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power plants under construction in the country. Since then, 3.2 GW has been built and another 14.6 GW are in various stages of completion as more than 50 percent of electricity generated in the country comes from coal.

The Department of Energy projects that by 2040, the country would need 43 GW to power the economic engines of what used to be one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.

Under the Philippine Energy Plan (PEP), coal-fired power plants will increase their share of the mix to nearly 59 percent by 2040, while renewable energy will remain at a low 26 percent, ignoring a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 70 percent in 2030 under the Paris climate change deal.

The agreement aims to keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels as well as limit it to 1.5 degrees to reduce the risks posed by climate change.

The United Nations has recognized climate change as a global threat to humanity as carbon dioxide emissions related to energy continue to rise, reaching 33.1 billion in 2018, a record high.  Emissions have increased by more than 40 percent since 2000.

Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 and the recent typhoons Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses should serve as a reminder not only for the Duterte government, but for the people, to start investing in clean, renewable energy sources, like wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and nuclear.

The Philippines can also look into operating nuclear power plants as an alternative to wind and solar farms. Nuclear plants need less space to produce more energy.

Duterte had so much belief in the peaceful use of nuclear energy when he signed an executive order in July giving an interagency body the mandate to formulate policy to revive the country’s nuclear sector.

Two months later, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, speaking at the 64th general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said “the country’s economic landscape would be much different had we tapped nuclear power back then.”

“Instead, our economic development was stunted, whereas our regional neighbors who had boldly ventured towards nuclear energy, had all been transformed into economic powerhouses,” he said. 

The Philippines has a nuclear power plant, built in the 1970s as a response to the Middle East oil crisis by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But it did not go into full operation. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was mothballed due to corruption and safety issues.

Perhaps, the safety concern could now be set aside as the plant withstood a powerful earthquake in 1990 and the structure has remained sound after nearly five decades.

Based on an older model and design, the government has to review and test the integrity of its structures and acquire new nuclear technology to increase its potential capacity from 600 megawatts (MW) to possibly a gigawatt.

Last month, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, assured residents of Morong town, Bataan that they would be properly consulted before the government made a decision to operate the plant.

Ex-congressman Mark Cojuangco has been a long-time proponent of reviving the nuclear plant to meet the growing power demand.

During the time of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he said the South Koreans were interested in operating the BNPP with a billion-dollar investment.

Last year, the government signed deals with Chinese and Russian state nuclear companies to operate a nuclear plant in the country, not necessarily the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, assuring the country of access to the latest safe and efficient technology that could generate more capacity.

During Duterte’s October 2019 visit to Russia, Moscow offered to finance the construction of the plant and to share in the revenues in its operations.

However, the Philippines has yet to sign another document prepared months back to start the project.

Historically, nuclear power has played its biggest role in advanced economies, where it makes up 18 percent of total electricity generation today. 

France is the most dependent on nuclear energy, with 70 percent of its electricity generated from nuclear reactors. By number of operating reactors, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of generating 105 GW; France is second with 58 reactors generating 66 GW of electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there is also more potential for nuclear energy expansion in developing nations with state-controlled, centralized economies. 

China is the world’s third-largest nuclear generator, with 45 reactors capable of producing 46 GW of electricity. It also has the biggest plans for new power plants, with 11 at various stages of construction.

India is building seven; Russia, six; and the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, four, with other countries each constructing one or two nuclear power plants.

The IEA said nuclear power is a large-scale, concentrated energy source that provides round-the-clock electricity. Yet it is flexible enough to contribute effectively to low carbon energy systems with large shares of variable renewable sources like wind and solar. Its GHG emissions per kilowatt-hour are 40 times less than those of an efficient gas-fired power plant.

Typhoon Ulysses has awakened Duterte on the impact of climate change as he blamed it for destruction and deaths.

But he has to match his rhetoric with actions as his government was too slow and timid to scale down construction of coal-fired power plants and focus on renewable energy sources, which are abundant in the country.

Multilateral financial institutions must stop supporting investments in fossil fuels, particularly in coal and crude oil. Big business should sink in more funds in solar and wind farms not only inshore but offshore.

The Duterte administration can help encourage more investments in renewable energy by offering incentives and tax credits as well as breaking up monopolies in certain energy sectors, including solar, to make it affordable for homes to install solar panels.

In sharp contrast, Vietnam which had overtaken the Philippines in terms of GDP this year, has been generating 45 percent of its power requirement from renewables and has the biggest solar power production in the region.

Finally, the president’s nuclear ambitions are less inspiring as his government only plans to construct 1.2 MW of nuclear power plants by 2030, just doubling the capacity of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

Duterte must realize he could not hold developed countries accountable for climate change impact without changing his own energy policies.