Drastic and urgent measures against pollution

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Marvin A. Tort


A report in The Philippine Star yesterday said the German Federal Government would invest €1 billion (equivalent to $1.2 billion) in environment projects in cities and towns across the country in 2018. These projects will look into environment-friendly traffic solutions that would help lower air pollution.

It is unsurprising that Germany is taking action. A report by European media platform EURACTIV noted that in Stuttgart, for instance, its annual nitrogen dioxide level was often “more than double the acceptable threshold value.” It also said that German cities with “pollution levels just below Stuttgart’s were Munich, Reutlingen, Düren, Limburg and Freiburg.”

The Star report added that federal funds would be invested into electric buses, electric charging stations, and a more environmentally friendly traffic infrastructure. At the same time, German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks reportedly called on the German automobile industry to also “support the government’s action plan.”

Seventeen years ago, I was in Hanover for the Expo 2000 World Fair, on a trip hosted by the German Embassy in Manila. That trip included visits to Munich, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt, among others. That early, almost two decades ago, I was already amazed by the efforts of the federal and state governments to curb pollution.

That trip included a close look at environment-friendly homes, built with passive cooling and maximum lighting in mind, and the use of solar panels as well as light and recyclable materials. We also looked into recycling plants making use of glass, plastic, and paper wastes. And then there was a visit to a train station running on solar power. This was almost 20 years ago.

To date, online publication Clean Technica reported that on April 30, Germany “established a new national record for renewable energy use.” It noted that “part of that day (during the long May 1 weekend), 85% of all the electricity consumed in Germany was being produced from renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric power.”

“Most of Germany’s coal-fired power stations were not even operating on Sunday, April 30th, with renewable sources accounting for 85% of electricity across the country,” Clean Technica quoted Patrick Graichen of Berlin-based policy institute Agora Energiewende Initiative. “Nuclear power sources, which are planned to be completely phased out by 2022, were also severely reduced.”

Graichen was also quoted as saying that days like last April 30 would become “completely normal” by 2030, as the German federal government’s Energiewende, or energy revolution, “begins to really reap the benefits of the investments made in renewable energy resources since 2010.”

Seven years ago, Germany started Energiewende (German for energy transition), a plan to transition to low-carbon, environmentally sound, reliable, and affordable energy supply. In this line, Germany plans to rely heavily on renewable energy (particularly wind, photovoltaics, and hydroelectricity), energy efficiency, and energy demand management.

In addition, most if not all existing coal-fired generation will be retired. Germany’s fleet of nuclear reactors will also be phased out by 2022. Legislative support passed in late 2010 also set targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions of 80%–95% by 2050 (relative to 1990), and a renewable energy target of 60% by that year.

As of 2013, Germany reportedly spends €1.5 billion per year on energy research in line with the energy transition plan. And in 2018, it reportedly plans to spend another €1 billion for traffic-related programs to help lower air pollution. So, other than planning ahead, Germany has also been spending to make the energy transition a reality.

It is in this line that I think it is laudable for the Philippine Senate to have now doubled the excise tax rate for nonmetallic minerals and quarry resources, considering that the last adjustment in tax rates was in 1994. The excise tax on coal was also raised from the present P10 per metric ton (/MT) to P100/MT in the first year of implementation, P200/MT in the second year, and P300/MT starting the third year.

But, a higher tax on coal — among others — is just a first step. This should be complemented with additional regulations prescribing the use of the cleanest coal technologies.

In fact, this direction should cover not only coal but all other types of technologies for power generation and industrial production.

In addition, we should spend more time, effort, and resources to learn further from the German experience. I reiterate my call for more studies on shifting completely to renewable energy, at an appropriate and feasible time, on the condition that any additional government subsidies or financing should be only short-term.

I also reiterate my call for the government, through Congress, to legislate a phase-out of the use of plastic bottles, and the imposition of a high tax on plastic bottles until they are completely phased out. Revenues from such taxes can be earmarked for pro-environment programs and for research on suitable and environment-friendly alternatives to plastics.

About a decade ago, a colleague remarked to me that I spent more money on car maintenance every year than on annual medical tests. Realizing my folly, since then I have endeavored to undergo medical examination yearly. After all, I feel that without my health, all else will be pointless. One must be fit enough to work, be productive, or to enjoy life.

The same argument applies to the environment.

We should, at this point, consider drastic and urgent measures to address degradation. What will be the point in our long-term efforts to build a strong and productive economy, and wealthy households, if pollution will soon kill the world and the population, anyway?


Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.