Environmental crusader Carlos Aboitiz on why we should confront our warring opinions on climate justice and energy transition
Among the greatest public issues of our time, as drastic as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is climate change. The long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns of our planet affect our lives in all aspects from health to productivity, agriculture, housing, and safety.
While the depiction of the climate emergency is a stretch from reality in the 2004 sci-fi epic The Day After Tomorrow, with cataclysmic weather events across the globe ultimately leading to a second ice age, the fact remains that humanity is doomed to suffer an agonizing end.
Swiss-based international organization focused on the conservation of nature, World Wildlife Fund (WFF), predicts that if emissions remain unchecked, the Arctic would be ice-free by the summer of 2040. Sea levels would rise, increasing coastal flooding and erosions as well as storm surges. Droughts and floods would consequently force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty, as projected in the 2022 Climate Justice Roundtable of the humanitarian organization, Unicef.
Despite the matter of our collapsing ecosystems being brought up as early as 1938 by English engineer Guy Callendar, who connected the upsurge of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to global warming, it was only during the 21st century that people began taking the dilemma seriously. A turning point was in 2019, during United Nations’ climate action summit where Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg called out the world leaders for their negligence and apathy toward climate change in her scathing speech.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” said Greta, who at the time was just 16 years old. “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
It is no easy task to address the dire threat posed by climate breakdown. This is where the indispensable framework of “climate justice” comes in. The concept expresses the idea that the adverse impacts of global warming are disproportionate or not distributed equally.
Staunch exponent of climate justice Carlos Aboitiz, the chief corporate services officer of Aboitiz Power, the electricity generation arm of the Philippine holding company Aboitiz Group, expounds on the notion of climate equity concerning one of the most important megatrends today, the energy transition—the shift from fossil-based systems of power production and consumption such as oil, natural gas, and coal to renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.
“Climate justice is often talked about with a north-to-south divide, fixed on the idea that people who have the least bear the most. From the Philippine perspective, there’s a divide between those ‘with’ and those ‘with less,’” says the Cebuano businessman.
Fundamentally, the discussion on climate justice starts with the acceptance that climate change is real. It is what the broad scientific community says and it is also backed up by data and analytics. We should also recognize its urgency on a global scale that requires complete rewiring. Climate variability moves quickly and with grave consequences.
But then, creating a sense of urgency around a predicament so big—no individual, one company, or one country could solve—leads to two reactions. Most people would put their heads in the sand while the other response is to find an answer.
'Wisdom is found in tensions. We should strive to be a wiser world, not just take in the easy things. Too much of a good thing is typically bad. It’s about finding balance.'
The challenge is when various heads claim to have a panacea for a complicated topic. People are selling solutions mostly advantageous for themselves. “Because that’s where the profit is, that’s where one gains reputation or social standing,” argues the energy game changer.
He furthers that the narrative on climate breakdown is often oversimplified so everyone can understand it. “We need to appreciate the complexity of the problem,” says Carlos. “It’s not as simple as non-renewable versus renewable or binary outcomes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”
This is why Carlos advocates for the understanding that each nation must craft responses and actions toward climate change based on the dimensions of responsibility, vulnerability, and capability. No two countries are equal and so our agreements, along with our pledges and resolutions, as well as our sense of personal culpability, must be guided accordingly.
As a backgrounder, Aboitiz Power was first established in 1978 as a poles and wires business, venturing into distribution utility networks in Jolo, Ormoc, Cotabato, Davao, and eventually in other Special Economic Zones in Luzon and Visayas. The first power firm in the country to introduce hydro through its subsidiary Hedcor, it is among the nation’s leading renewable energy providers with over 50 power plants across the Philippines.
Back then, there was little consciousness of climate change. The attention was on biodiversity and other forms of pollution rather than emission. With the passing of the Renewable Energy Law in the Philippines, Aboitiz Power delved into sustainable energy, particularly establishing power plants in Magat and Ambuklao for hydro, as well as Tiwi and Makban for geothermal.
From 2010 to 2020, energy consumption in the Philippines rapidly grew. The need for a dependable power source urged Aboitiz Power, along with many other companies in the Philippines to build and buy coal plants, which would later be instrumental in supplying barely enough electricity to meet the needs of the energy system.
With the gradual spread of environmental awareness, various policies and subsidies for renewable drove its economics down. Aboitiz Power’s portfolio, nonetheless, remained primarily thermal, hydro, and coal, staying true to its mission to provide reliable, reasonable, and responsible energy.
“We have been in a constant transition. We’ve gone from biomass to coal to a variety of nuclear and gas over 100 years. Historically, there is no one technology to work out the climate crisis,” says Carlos. There is always a mix of technologies and it takes a long time to phase out gas, coal, and biomass.
In a country highly vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change, renewable energy is just as susceptible. “Solar panels and wind turbines are affected by high winds to a greater degree than a coal or gas or a geothermal plant,” explains Carlos.
To move forward, we have to acknowledge where we are coming from and our situation as a third-world country. “We have to advocate climate justice. We need to factor in the inequality when setting targets, expectations, and assigning resources,” explains Carlos.
Instead of climate mitigation, the Philippines should pivot to adaptation, to help communities cope since the problem will not get solved in the next 20 to 30 years. “The circumstance will get worse, and the cost to deal with climate change will increase. We need to help others bear those costs,” Carlos says. “Our goal for the next 10 years is to grow our renewable portfolio up to three times to try and reach 50 percent capacity mix. It may not be the whole solution, but it is part of it.”
He also advises that we should look at what we can do as individuals to advance our development as a country in terms of climate change. We can consume less energy and materials and be mindful of our emissions.
“We should know that as a smaller, more vulnerable country, we are not at fault for climate change. Because we are worst hit, we should mostly be concerned with our own development,” he says, adding that in 10 years, the Philippines will need 70 percent more energy.
In this regard, the biggest contribution Aboitiz Power can make is to build up renewable energy. “We are not as responsible as other bigger countries,” Carlos reiterates. “Therefore, our focus should be on energy security and affordability.”
He points out that the energy transition will not be smooth as it is not just a question of technological change but also of supply and geopolitical changes. “That’s why it is significant to be willing to listen to unpopular opinions and have a conversation on the complexity of things rather than just accept the simple stories being told. Have a practical dialogue and welcome different views,” Carlos says. “Wisdom is found in tensions. We should strive to be a wiser world, not just take in the easy things. Too much of a good thing is typically bad. It’s about finding balance.”