Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for March, 2008

Building a coal-fired power-plant in Iloilo is a bad idea

Posted by butalidnl on 28 March 2008

In Iloilo, there is a ongoing struggle between business groups on one hand, and the Catholic church & environmental groups on the other, over the proposal to build a 100-megawatt coal-fired power plant in the city. According to business groups, the coal plant is needed in order to provide Iloilo city and Iloilo province, as well as the whole of Panay island with enough electricity in the near future. They say that the till now, Iloilo has suffered from “inadequate, expensive, unreliable and poor quality of power supply; and that the power crisis has discouraged investors from coming to Iloilo.

However, the Catholic church and environmental groups oppose the project because of health and pollution threats.

I agree with the church and environmental groups. Building a new coal-fired power plant in Iloilo is a bad idea.

The proposed 100 MW coal fired plant will use up to 300,000 tons of coal a year. In an average year, such a coal plant will generate: 640,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2); 2000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2); 100 tons of small airborne particles; 2000 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx); 140 tons of carbon monoxide (CO);45 tons of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds;35 pounds of mercury; 45 pounds of arsenic; and 22 pounds of lead; plus some cadmium and other heavy metals. This is a lot of pollution. In addition, dust blown from piles of coal outside the plant also irritates the lungs. And then there is the problem of disposing of the solid residue that is left after the coal is burned.
[reference:Environmental impacts of coal power]

Coal is expensive and the supply is unreliable.
A couple of years ago, coal cost about $30/ton, making the electricity generated from coal cost only slightly more than hydroelectric power. This, plus the fact that the Philippines produced some coal, meant that coal-fired power plants were cheap and didn’t make the country more dependent on imports.
Today, the price of coal has increased to about $160/ton. Add to this the fact that a coal-fired plant costs more to build than a oil or gas-fired plant, and this would make coal one of the most expensive sources of electricity. [note that electricity from oil-fired plants is still more expensive than that from coal]

The price of coal has skyrocketed because of many reasons, but the underlying reason is that the demand for coal from countries like China has increased significantly. China used to export coal to the Philippines; in 2007, China not only kept all its coal production, it also bought a lot of coal in the international market.

The supply of coal is really becoming a problem, especially for electricity generation. In 2007, South Africa had to temporarily cease operations in many of its gold mines  because of the lack of electricity. Apparently, there was not enough coal for their coal-fired power plants.
Napocor needs 3.47 million tons of coal a year for its existing coal-fired power plants. As of March 2008, it still needs to acquire 455,000 tons of coal for this year. Adding more coal-fired power plants would only make the problem of obtaining enough coal more acute.

So, if the Napocor wants coal-fired power plants to built in Iloilo, it would not only have to worry about the rapidly increasing price of coal, it will also have to deal with possible shortages of coal.

The potential of generating energy from renewable sources should be explored.
Panay island (and most of the Philippines, for that matter) has a big potential for developing its renewable energy resources for generating electricity. According to the Affiliated Non-conventional Energy Center – based in Central Philippine University (ANEC-CPU), Panay island can develop up to 300 MW of electricity from hydro, 4000 MW from wind energy, 500 MW from biomass, and 5000 MW from solar. This is more than enough to substitute for the proposed 100 MW coal plant.
The local authorities say that they have not received proposals for renewable energy power generation, unlike the companies that offered to build the coal plant. But the question should be reversed: did the provincial government of Iloilo call for bids or proposals for wind or biomass plants? isn’t it their task to make a general call for bids (to companies in the Philippines and abroad) to build electricity generating capacity of 100 megawatts? I’m sure there are enough companies which could take up the offer.

Posted in environment | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Ban the use of plastic bags?

Posted by butalidnl on 22 March 2008

Manila councilor Numero Lim has proposed a ban on the use of plastic bags in all of Manila’s business establishments. According to the proposed ordinance, all supermarkets, grocery stores and other retail business establishments should use paper bags, bayong (woven grass or buri bags) and other biodegradable containers for packaging dry goods and grocery items. According to the EcoWaste Coalition, plastic bags and other synthetic packaging materials made up more than three fourths of the garbage found in Manila Bay. According to them, plastics take a thousand years to disintegrate and gradually release toxins into the water and soil.

We do not know whether the anti-plastic bag ordinance will be adopted. However, it does raise a serious environmental issue. It is also not unique to Manila. Many cities and countries around the world have regulations intended to cut the use of plastic bags. Starting 1 June 2008, stores in China are prohibited from giving out free plastic bags. San Francisco has banned the use of plastic bags since March 2007. Even Bangladesh has a ban – the reason for this is that plastic bags clog their drainage systems, aggravating their floods.

If the proposed ban does not pass, it will probably be due to objections to the added cost to the consumers, and difficulty in implementation. Some may even point out that the pollution in Manila bay is due to more cities, and not only Manila.

What I believe would be cheaper and perhaps easier to implement, will be to follow the Chinese measure – ban the giving out of free plastic bags. In other words, if customers want to use plastic bags, they should pay extra for it. At the same time, we should make an exception for meat, fish, poultry or fresh produce, which would then still be allowed to be put in free plastic bags (for reasons of sanitation -this is the rule followed in Israel) .
In addition, there should be a tax levied per plastic bag; and the proceeds of the tax should be used for clearing the Pasig and other waterways in Metro Manila, as well as Manila bay. [this tax should not be the only funds used for the clean-up though; the local governments should also allot significant amounts to this effort]

And most important: the ordinance should be adopted all over Metro Manila. Cities or municipalities which do not adopt this should be assessed extra for the clean-up of the waterways and Manila Bay (significantly more than the other cities and municipalities).

Prohibiting the giving out of free plastic bags will mean that people will be forced to either use reusable plastic bags, or other kinds of bags. However, we should also avoid that retailers shift to giving out single-use paper bags. While paper bags are biodegradable (unlike plastics), using too much paper is also bad for the environment, both in terms of trees cut down for raw material, as well as the chemicals needed to process the wood to paper. Thus, there may also be a need to impose a tax on single-use paper bags.

A note on the biodegradeability of plastics. The EcoWaste Coalition says that plastic takes thousands of years to disintegrate. This claim needs to be nuanced a bit. It depends on the kind of plastic, and where the plastics spend all this time. Polystyrene plastic, which is used where heat-resistance is important, is used for plastic plates, styrofoam cups, and even things like toys, packaging materials, etc is quite durable, and is not biodegradeable. Polystyrene plastic items, if thrown away, will take literally thousands of years to decompose. And since polystyrene is composed of very long strands of benzene rings, burning it or slow decomposition will release benzene, which is toxic.

Polyethelene, however, which is the kind of plastic most widely used for plastic bags, is said to decompose (when exposed to air and water) in about 20 years. And it decomposes into relatively harmless substances like water and methane.

Which brings us to the related idea: why not also take a measure to ban, or at least minimize, the use of items made of polystyrene plastics?

Posted in environment | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Fitna is an instrument for oppression, and not free speech

Posted by butalidnl on 21 March 2008

The impending release of Fitna, Geert Wilders’ anti-Koran movie, is pushing the discussion on what all this has to do with the freedom of expression.

The freedom of expression was cited by Danish newspapers, when they recently decided to reprint the controversial “Mohammed cartoons” (actually, they’re more caricatures than cartoons). The Danes said that they did this to protest the effective suppression of their press freedom. They said that Muslims should learn to take this kind of thing as part of how things are done in the modern world.

The same logic of freedom of expression is raised by Geert Wilders, the Dutch ultra-rightist, when he asserts that he has the right to attack Islam – especially now when he is about to broadcast his anti-Koran film, Fitna.

The debate on these inflammatory actions (both of the Danish media and Wilders) has recently boiled down to the conflict between the damage to national interest and press freedom. I am particularly disturbed that practically all parties here in the Netherlands seem to uphold Wilder’s freedom to express his views, even despite the extreme negative effects this would have on large groups of people. And that for them the main problem is not in terms of his right to express himself, but on the negative consequences for the country if he does so.

It is as if Dutch politicians declare that although they want to restrict Wilder’s “basic right”to express himself, their doing this is something like a “necessary evil” since this would hurt the country.

I think that they are missing a basic point in this. The freedom of expression, like other basic human rights, is part of a package. And this package of rights is intended to empower the weaker members of society, enable them to fully develop themselves as individuals and groups, and promote the smooth working of the whole society. From this framework, the exercise of the component rights becomes relative – both in a practical sense, and in principle. Take for example, the right to assembly – this needs to be curtailed in the case of rioting that causes bodily harm and destruction of property. And the freedom of religion is no excuse to deprive their members of health care. Such trade-offs between the various basic rights are principled decisions, and not merely practical.

In addition, rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, non-discrimination, etc., are particularly important in order to protect the weaker members of society. Thus, the freedom of expression would enable the oppressed, poor, or minority groups to be able to air their grievances, inform the rest of the population re these, and work to improve government policies towards them.

These rights are not there for the dominant and powerful – after all, they would be able to express themselves, assemble, practice their religion etc even without a special bill of rights. Human rights are thus the rights of the unempowered, the minorities etc.. If the powerful invoke such rights (especially in this case, the freedom of expression) in a way, and with the intention, of suppressing the rights of the weaker sections of society, this should be prohibited. And the basis of this prohibition should not merely be the fear of negative consequences, but rather on principle – the principle that human rights should be emancipatory and not oppressive.

Going back to Geert Wilders’ Fitna – this film should be banned on the basis that its purpose is to ban the Koran, which would be a grave infringement on the freedom of religion of muslims. There is no additional evidence needed to ban this film: Wilder’s declaration of his purpose for the film is enough; it is an attack on Islam as a religion. Wilders should not be given the opportunity to oppressive the muslim minority in the Netherlands, and help others to oppress muslims elsewhere.

Proceeding from the above line of reasoning, I believe that Wilders should be prohibited from continuing his campaign to ban the Koran.

* also see my other blog post: Anti-islam movie coming this April in the internet

Posted in The Netherlands | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Anti-islam movie coming this April in the internet

Posted by butalidnl on 20 March 2008

The word is out: Fitna, the anti-islam movie by the Dutch ultra-right (and racist) politician Geert Wilders will definitely come out this coming April; but only in the internet. According to Wilders, the movie will show that the Koran is a book that is full of passages inciting to violence (against nonMuslims). With it, he wants to back up his arguments for a crackdown on Muslims in the Netherlands, which he sees as a mortal threat to Dutch society. (He literally believes in this, declaring that many Muslims are out to kill Christians.) His party, the PVV (Party for Freedom – what an ironic name, if you ask me) is calling for severe limitations on immigration from Muslim countries, and even the banning of the Koran, among other things.

Wilders originally wanted to broadcast Fitna on Dutch TV. This plan raised tempers all over the Muslim world, and Dutch diplomatic and security services warned of severe repercussions against Dutch citizens, properties and products if the film comes out on TV. The Dutch government and parliament implored Wilders not to go on with his broadcast plans, since this would hurt Dutch interests abroad and create tensions within Dutch society. Wilders refused.

The government and parliament are not able to simply ban the film, if there is no proof that the film is harmful. Although we all know that it will probably be quite harmful; Dutch courts could only ban the film  if evidence is presented proving it to be harmful.  For this to happen, a copy of the film is needed, or enough testimony presented to prove the point.

The broadcast media saved the day. All TV networks refused to broadcast Fitna (which actually is only a 15 minute movie). They said that Wilders demanded that they  agree to air the movie, even before they would have a chance to preview it. Wilders made this demand because he was afraid that letting the movie be previewed would provide the proof needed for a ban. The networks found Wilders’ demand unreasonable, because it would deprive them of editorial control over what they broadcast (after all, they would in effect be responsible for something they had not yet seen).

The latest announcement that the film will come out in the internet is about the best that we could hope for, I guess.  In theory, it could still be possible to stop this if somehow the internet providers would all refuse to host it.  Or if the domain name would be cancelled by the domain registry authorities.  But I doubt it.

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Electoral Reform No.1: A Two-Round Election System

Posted by butalidnl on 14 March 2008

The electoral system in the Philippines needs to be reformed. The question is: where should we start? I suggest that we should start with reforms that are both relatively easy to do, and which could make a significant impact.

I suggest that the first thing that should be changed in the election rules is that which governs contests where there are more than two candidates. The present rule is that the candidate who wins the most votes wins (which is the “plurality” rule). And thus, if there are 3 candidates to a post, the winner could get as low as 34% of the vote and still win. If there are 4, the minimum votes needed would be 26%; for 5 candidates it would be 21%. Of course, these are extreme cases, but the point is that candidates would win even if she/he got less than 50% of the vote. This is not really democratic, since democracy means that the majority rules.

The amendment that I propose is to have a second round of elections whenever none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the votes cast (in the first round). The top two candidates in the first round would then fight it out in the second round of elections. This way, anyone who gets elected is sure to have more than 50% of the votes.
This is not a radical idea. A lot of countries have this rule.

This amendment will be both practical and effective. It is practical because:

It is easy to implement. It does not call for a radical change in how we hold elections – only that we may have to do things for a second round, sometimes. It can be implemented immediately in the elections following the passing of the new law.

It does not immediately threaten politicians or any political group. Traditional politicians could find ways to thrive under such an election rule. It may cost a bit more for them due to a longer campaign period, but that is not such a big thing. Since it doesn’t threaten them, existing politicians would not oppose it, and even support it.

It is a reform that is easy to pass in Congress. This reform is a simple change in a small part of the Constitution.  It can be passed simply by a 2/3 vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

It will be effective because:

A wider range of political parties would field candidates. Today, there are many more parties than those which field candidates for elections. The smaller parties often do not field candidates for higher positions because of the small chance of winning, especially due to prohibitive campaign expenses. With the rule of a two-round elections, smaller parties would field candidates, even for the top positions. Reasons for them to do this would include:
– it would give their program and candidates wider exposure;
– it would show other political parties how big their mass support is;
– they could endorse candidates in the second round in exchange for concessions.

People could vote for the parties and candidates of their choice without worrying about “strategy”. In the present system of elections, supporters of minor candidates are discouraged from voting for them, by the idea that this would be a wasted vote. Worse, that their vote would indirectly help a candidate they don’t like, by depriving their second choice candidate of their vote. This was shown in the last presidential elections, when people were discouraged from voting for Roco, because this would lessen the support for GMA and thus indirectly help FPJ win the election.
With the two-round election set-up, people will simply vote for the candidate they want, at least in the first round. In the second round, they would then vote for the candidate they prefer (of the two candidates left, that is).

It promotes the political party system. Support by the smaller parties to the bigger ones in the second round will be channeled mainly through parties and less through individual candidates. In countries with the two-round election system e.g. France, we see that parties make arrangements before the elections, to support each other in the second round.

The net effect of all this is that the hold on political power by the political elite would be weakened, and that inter-party transactions would be public (and thus transparent). It would give people a better bond with the political process, and encourage more political participation during and after elections.

The two-round election reform will promote democracy in more than just a formal sense.

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