Renewable energy (alone) won’t solve the climate crisis

by Alaina Ligot & Aldrin Adriano

Energy is the driving force that enables many of us to live in the way we do now. In schools, workplaces, and our own homes, we use energy carried in the form of electricity and fuels. We harness this power in many ways, but there are two main categories of where exactly we get energy: renewable and non-renewable energy sources. 

Renewable energy comes from natural resources or processes that replenish quickly. Common examples include hydropower and solar power. Conversely, non-renewable energy comes from resources that take centuries or even millennia to replenish. Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal — the most widely used energy sources globally — fall into the non-renewable category. 

Despite being so widespread, non-renewable energy sources are extremely unsustainable. For one, experts estimate that the world will run out of fossil fuels by 2060 — less than forty years from now — meaning that future generations can no longer rely on these sources for energy. Also, burning fossil fuels for energy, heat, or transportation, emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) that gravely contribute to global warming. Our energy sources, the climate, and our future are thus deeply intertwined, especially with non-renewables in play. 

Similarly, renewable energy has its own place in determining our future. In recent years, there has been an uptrend in renewable energy consumption — and for good reason. Converting renewables into energy has a much more positive impact on the environment compared to non-renewables. The process itself typically produces little to no GHGs, and since they replenish naturally, future generations can consistently have access to energy given that these resources are appropriately utilized. In this way, renewables take us one step closer to generating energy and consuming resources in a way that is sustainable for both the people and the environment.

Like the rest of the world, the Philippines has also seen the potential of renewable energy to benefit the economy, environment, and lives of the people. With plenty of potential benefits, energy specialists have looked into exploring and innovating renewable energy solutions. One attempt to pursue supposedly sustainable renewable energy would be Davao’s Waste to Energy (WTE) project.

The WTE program was proposed by the government to provide more energy while also attempting to address excessive waste in landfills. The project includes a waste incineration facility, which is still receiving funding from the Japanese government. According to the project specifications, the PHP 2.5 billion plant would require 800 tons of waste for its every day operations.

Another popular example of renewable energy is hydropower. After oil, coal, gas, and traditional biomass, hydropower was the fifth most used energy source globally in 2019. In the Philippines, hydroelectric power followed a similar trend, as it has addressed 20% of the country’s energy consumption in recent years. A project related to hydropower would be the Kaliwa Dam. This particular dam is a part of the New Centennial Water Source (NCWS), a project for which President Rodrigo Duterte had secured a $235.9 million loan deal from China. Aside from supposedly serving as a way of tapping into clean energy, this dam was also proposed as a “sustainable” water source for people in the National Capital Region and surrounding areas. 

Solar energy has also proven to be quite viable in the Philippines. With the country being close to the equator with large open spaces, many areas have the potential to generate 4.5 to 5.5 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. Companies like Solar Philippines and Meralco have also shown interest in growing the solar power industry, with recent updates including Solar Philippines’ plan to construct a 500 MW solar park on former ranchland in Peñaranda, in the province of Nueva Ecija. 

With these recent advancements in renewable energy, it is evident that renewable energy has the potential to address issues aside from the climate and energy crises. However, although these energy sources replenish quickly, they are not guaranteed to be environmentally- or people-friendly. 

Energy sources can be renewable and unsustainable at the same time. With a lack of nuanced and educational public discussions, it can be easy and convenient to label renewable energy sources as green. However, renewable energy sources do not always result in sustainability. 

For example, if we take a closer look at the details, Davao’s WTE project does not genuinely solve the problem it is trying to address. It may seem like converting waste into energy helps with the excessive waste issue. In reality, it does not address the root cause of the problem. Landfills overflow because of overproduction, and the actual amount of waste we produce will not decrease just because we incinerate it. 

Additionally, these waste-to-energy programs do not completely eliminate excess waste either. Davao’s WTE project cannot use organic waste even when 50% of waste collected in the region is organic. Even if energy is harnessed from whatever waste is burned, this practice would add more fuel to the flame of the ongoing climate crisis. The incineration of waste is still the incineration of fossil fuels, and more greenhouse gases (GHGs) will be emitted with this seemingly sustainable energy source. 

Realistically, with this program, we would be producing the same amount of waste and burning some of it for energy with the added harm of increased rates of GHG emissions. There are alternatives to managing excess waste. A more sustainable solution would be to reduce our overall waste output (ultimately caused by systemic overproduction), direct waste away from landfills by upcycling, recycling, composting, and reusing, and implement the appropriate measures to make these practices accessible to all.

Similarly, harnessing hydroelectric energy through dams like the Kaliwa Dam could be unsustainable for the people and the environment. Hydropower facilities take a lot of space; as a result, they displace not just water levels but also people settled nearby. The nine dams in the NCWS actually stemmed from a plan for one large dam from 2009. This was the Laiban dam, and it was as sizable as it was controversial. Environmentalist groups and indigenous communities fought fiercely against the dam as it would affect 28,000 hectares of land and displace 11,000 indigenous families. After many scandals with the funding and public backlash, the original plan was shelved and revised into the nine smaller dams of NCWS with the Kaliwa Dam at the forefront. 

Even if the new dams are smaller, they still have a significant effect on the environment and people. The Kaliwa Dam alone will uproot eight villages and 1,465 families, and the NCWS project as a whole will affect 39 different indigenous communities. The diverted water will negatively affect an additional 1,200 farmers and 1,800 hectares downstream. On top of this, the local ecosystem and indigenous lands will suffer as well. By leaving these indigenous communities in the dark about the project planning, the government showed blatant disregard for the well-being of the affected indigenous people and environment. 

As for solar power, one of the main concerns would be how large solar energy farms can displace farming communities. As Filipino small farmers across the country are already experiencing land ownership issues, projects like these can end up adding an additional threat to their livelihoods. Other concerns as of the moment would include constant maintenance and the lack of adequate infrastructure to accommodate solar power.  

One viable solution to these issues would be to localize solar power production, specifically through distributed generation. Distributed generation would reduce disruptive land usage and demand for energy distribution infrastructure. It would also allow more localized energy consumption for the people, which is both efficient and appealing. However, there are a lot of infrastructure changes necessary to promote this sort of approach.

With this concept of unsustainability plaguing renewable energy, the question remains: can renewable energy still address the world’s climate and energy issues, while protecting both people and the planet?

Essentially, it can. Renewable energy technology existing today presents a clear way out of what could become a fossil fuel-driven catastrophe. However, renewable energy is not a one-fits-all solution — we still have to think critically and weigh out all the effects of projects to determine if it’s truly beneficial and appropriate for the situation. Even more importantly, these plans must consider the well-being of affected communities. 

The current profit-oriented system deepens existing inequalities between various groups, and it leaves vulnerable parties to fend for themselves. Mindlessly shifting to renewables will likely lead to the further exploitation of the Global South, where much of the minerals and materials for a green energy revolution will be extracted from. The Global North will continue to thrive in their electric cars and wind turbine farms at the expense of the most affected and vulnerable people. Continuing with the trend of irresponsibly pushing for green energy solutions will result in any possible benefits being diminished and erased. 

The climate crisis will not get any better if we simply pretend that it will get solved with greener energy. To introduce a renewable energy source, we must carefully consider the program’s feasibility with current resources and its effects on the environment, economy, and people. There is no one solution that will be applicable to every iteration of a problem; this especially applies to renewable energy. 

Becoming critical of proposed green energy programs is key to identifying what is truly a step in the right direction in terms of improving the climate situation. In the long run, we should be making decisions that promote a transition to a needs-based and sustainability-centered system, instead of relying uncritically on a shift to renewable energy solutions alone. 

This article is part of the Spotlight series by YACAP’s Education Committee which talks about various issues related to climate and climate action.

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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