emissions trading scheme

FOI in Action

As a public servant in Australia, I have personally seen how the Freedom of Information operates in the real world.

In the department where I used to work, a lot of commercial feasibility studies were processed and kept “in confidence” due to the sensitive nature of such deals. A colleague of mine used to handle FOI requests a lot. He would sometimes show me the redacted documents he would photocopy and send back in response to them. Sometimes nearly the entire text of the document would be blocked out due to the private or confidential nature of its contents, and the fact that it was not necessary to know these details to understand the measures being considered.

We were asked to operate by a code of ethics which mandated us to treat such confidential information with utmost care. We were told to maintain correspondences including electronic mail whether internal or external to our department that might be subject of an FOI request. This created disk space issues for us. We had to exercise discretion in determining if these correspondences were important and sensitive enough to require archiving.

Many of the requests would come from the media, but some would come from ordinary citizens. “Joe Blogs” we would call them. There have been a number of instances recently that demonstrate how FOI requests can influence public debate over contentious issues of the day. One request in particular revealed the Federal government’s preparedness (or lack thereof) in dealing with refugees arriving by boat and the lack of appropriate resources deployed to manage the centers for holding them while their applications for asylum were processed.

In a world where the technology exists for the state or as in the case of the News of the World large multinational corporations to spy on its citizens or persons of interest, the FOI is a good tool to make the access of information less asymmetric. Several things are worth noting with regard to this right to information though.

First is that any Freedom of Information Act has to be followed by or work alongside a Privacy Act. As of now, the Philippines neither has one nor the other. There are certain pieces of legislation that protect the privacy of rape victims and of children who are subject to the judicial system or maintain bank secrecy of depositors even from the government (which in my view needs to be lifted for tax purposes). There is also a bill on data privacy that has been flagged as a priority by the president. Nothing other than a very general clause in the constitution however enshrines the rights of citizens to maintain their privacy.

In the US, the FOI was initially a tool for citizens to gain access to their own personal records. In Australia as in the US, an FOI request can be declined if it would lead to an unreasonable disclosure of someone else’s personal information, medical records for instance. These must be obtained with the consent of the individual. Section 8 clause c provides an exception to the FOI when,

the information pertains to the personal information of a third party natural person, unless it forms part of a public record, or the third party is or was an official of a government agency and the information relates to his or her public function.

Rather than dealing with the issue of privacy piecemeal through disparate contexts, there should be a law that applies more broadly this right and what it entails. Furthermore, government departments and businesses in general must be required to have policies covering confidentiality. A privacy act would simply make confidentiality the default setting but allow clients to waive their rights or give permission for their details to be shared under certain conditions.

Second, just as the right to privacy is not absolute, the right to information is not absolute either. The state can surveil or search a private citizen’s residence or belongings under certain provisions. Citizens should also be granted access to information subject to certain caveats as well. None of these rights to request or deny information should be abused however. Judicial review of cases is made possible by the draft bill to ensure that this is the case. An information commission would also help set the proper guidelines as in the case of Australia.

Third, aside from preserving the confidentiality of third party or commercially sensitive information, the FOI bill also exempts the state from disclosing information when there is a national security risk or commercial risk involved (as in foreign negotiations), when it involves matters that are sub judice or when it involves anything obtained by Congress in executive session.

This list should also be expanded to include all deliberations undertaken by Cabinet. In the Westminster system, cabinet, not the prime minister, makes executive decisions. This makes policy making a collegial process. When cabinet is deliberating on an issue, its members should be free to express their views without fear of reprisal. This is sometimes referred to as the Chatham House Rule. In the Australian context, cabinet deliberations are kept confidential for a period of time. Although the presidential system works differently, the same principle can be applied.

The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd broke his silence recently and exposed the individual views of those within his “kitchen cabinet” on an emissions trading scheme that partially led to his downfall prior to the last election. His statement implied that his successor, the current PM Julia Gillard did not believe in the measure at the time it was considered. This has put her in an awkward position, as she tries to sell a similar scheme to a skeptical audience, something that the confidentiality of Cabinet is meant to shield its members from.

Returning to my original point about seeing the FOI in action, I have to say that in practice, it hardly interferes with the way we conduct business in the public sector, which should provide reassurance to those that fear it being enacted. As someone who works “on the other side of the fence” I would still have to endorse the Freedom of Information particularly because it does aid in making government more transparent.

Sometimes, bureaucrats have their hands tied behind their backs and are unable to speak out or question openly the policies of their political masters. It helps sometimes to have citizens doing their part, advocating changes and seeking clarification on measures undertaken to support a given policy agenda. Towards that end, the FOI in practice has been a very helpful tool.

50 by 30

The Philippines has committed to an ambitious renewable energy target of 50% by 2030, but is it up to the task?

I guess the question here is should the Philippines be doing this (setting up such an ambitious goal)?

To answer this question, we first need to look at the cost or potential adverse impact of maintaining higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere might have on us. If you accept the argument that man-made pollution is causing climate change, i.e. creating more severe weather disturbances, then the impact associated with these activities is very large indeed.

The Center for Global Development has tried to quantify the effects of severe weather events. In its report, the country ranks 4th most vulnerable country in the world to be directly impacted by extreme weather events. We are ranked below China (1st), India (2nd) and Bangladesh (3rd). If you consult their working paper on the effects of these events, you will find out what that means for the population.

Between 2008 and 2015, the likelihood of severe weather events is placed at 58%. While the impact of these disturbances can be mitigated through higher income and better regulations, about 5% of the total population could suffer. With our population expected to rise above 100 million in the next five years, that means about 5 million Filipinos will be in need of some form of assistance from natural disasters.

Using a small damage cost of 10 thousand pesos per individual, the total bill could be as much as 50 billion pesos. That excludes any damage suffered by the economy. In the first quarter of the year, the Australian economy contracted in part due to the floods that ravaged Queensland. The goal of reaching 7-8% might have to be scaled down by 1-2% points.

So if we are to take some responsibility for fixing the problem, should we not look at our contribution to it first?

Yes of course, and to answer that question, take a look at this map that was posted originally on The Cusp. It shows that the Philippines has a relatively small footprint compared to the likes of China, India and the West. The Philippines accounts for only 67.5 71 thousand kilo tons of green house gases or CO-2 equivalents, while China’s footprint is a hundred times larger 6.5 million in 2007; India’s is 1.7 million 25 times larger. By the way, in 2006, China’s footprint exceeded the US for the first time (6.1 M kt Co-2-e that’s million kilo tons of CO-2 equivalent, compared to 5.7 M kt for the US).

In per capita terms, the Philippines is also a minor contributor with only 0.8 0.78 metric tons of CO-2 equivalent emissions per person compared to twice that amount for nearby Indonesia (1.8 t) which had a comparable per capita income of 3,300 thousand dollars in 2007 2006 (in purchasing parity terms). That means the Philippines uses less than half the emissions to produce one dollar of GDP compared to Indonesia. China on the other hand saw its per capita footprint rise to 4.7 mt per person as its per capita incomes rose to $4,790. India is still way behind with per capita incomes of $2,540 and 1.5 mt of emissions per person.

What all of this means is that the energy mix of the country which has hydro and geothermal assets is much more eco-friendly compared to our close neighbors in the region. This means that each Filipino has contributed much less to the overall problem and yet will suffer an inordinately higher cost. This ought to be an argument for us gaining more grants to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the start, is the use of a 50% renewable target appropriate?

The answer I suppose is yes if you consider the potential of using solar, wave and wind energy. The Philippines being a tropical country on the typhoon belt should find a way to harness these abundant sources of renewable energy.

Compared with other countries, the Philippine target seems to be well placed. China is eyeing a 40-45% reduction from its 2005 levels by 2020. India is looking at a 20-25% reduction under the same timetable. Most of the rich nations are looking at 20-30% reductions as well.

It then becomes a question of affordability on the part of the consuming public. Since the country already has one of the highest costs of electricity in the ASEAN region, what set of policies would help?

Coal which is the dirtiest but cheapest source of energy and therefore most attractive for a middle income country has to be the first on the hit list, if we are to reduce our carbon footprint. A representative of Greenpeace noted that while the long term goal was ambitious, the government failed to demonstrate its commitment to it by lining up new coal-fired power plants in the near term to address the bulk of increased demand.

As a Productivity Commission report in Australia last month pointed out, to move from less costly but dirty coal to more costly and less polluting power sources such as oil and gas and non-renewable sources requires large interventions on the part of the government. The most efficient way to make the transition is through an emissions trading scheme rather than regulation or direct action policies (like Renewable Energy Certificates, Feed-In Tariffs or capital subsidies), the Commission concluded.

Australia which is eyeing a $15-20 dollar per ton carbon tax as a starting point of an emissions trading scheme to achieve a 5-25% reduction of 2000 based emissions by 2020 is also looking at amending its tax and compensation systems to compensate households for higher energy costs. Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that this would reduce gross national income by 0.1 per cent per capita, making it very affordable.

In order to address the question of affordability, the country will have to look at the question of whether or not to impose either a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme down the track. China is already considering piloting it in a few of its provinces. Japan and South Korea have plans of introducing an ETS although they have been put on hold. The Western Climate Initiative seeks to adopt an ETS in seven western states of the US and four provinces in Canada. Thirty countries in the EU have already adopted an ETS and so has New Zealand.

If the Philippines goes down the same road, it will have a lot of catching up to do. The goal would be to make the transition less costly to the economy and the populace. That’s as far as mitigation goes. In terms of adaptation, it will have to secure as big a share as it can from the global fund set up to help developing nations. As a middle income country, the Philippines will find it hard to justify more being spent here compared to much poorer nations. Let’s hope that our government is up to the task.