Will a jeepney phase-out lead to decarbonization in the Philippines?

Transition should not cause the sacrifice of their means of livelihood where they and their families have depended on for decades. It is only just for the government to reward their decades of service to the Filipino people with a sustainable, green and pro-poor solution.

During his 2013 visit to the Philippines, Hollywood superstar Vin Diesel said, “I love riding the jeepney. Those are the coolest buses I’ve ever seen.”

Never mind the mistake about jeepneys being buses, Diesel was right. Jeepneys are cool: the shiny, stainless hoods, the chassis often painted with wildly creative or utterly banal images, the deafening sound systems that can either give you a headache very early on the commute to work or a great morning as the music hits your senses like a shot of good, strong coffee.  

There is no debating that the public utility jeep or jeepney is truly a symbol of Filipino ingenuity. It is an icon of Filipino resilience and creativity.

American actor Vin Diesel, posing for a photo inside a jeepney in Manila in 2013. Photo from his Facebook page.

Jeepney history

After World War II, instead of rebuilding and widely using the more efficient trains to  become the backbone of the country’s mass transport system, the Philippine colonial government started building highways and more roads.

Luckily, loads of Willy Jeeps left behind by American GIs after the war were converted, recycled, and reinvented into jeepneys. The jeepney we now know can accommodate 12 to up to 22 passengers, and its engine is tough, capable of lasting up to two decades. The stainless body or chassis of jeepeneys were locally made, previously by Sarao and San Francisco, now also by several other homegrown talents. Jeepneys are also cheap to maintain. Unlike cars that rely on casas or high-end repair shops, side street mechanics can be relied upon to a jeepney’s engine trouble.  Jeepneys also provide the cheapest means of public transport and they are the most accessible for ordinary Filipinos, especially in the urban centers.

Passenger jeepney, post-World War II. Photo from https://www.pinterest.es/pin/344947652682788809/

In the absence of a national industrialization program that could have paved the way for cheap, locally built transportation vehicles, people have grown to depend on the ever reliable king of the road.

According to PSA Philippine Yearbook 2013, there were 1.8 million registered jeepneys.  Jeepney driver associations alone employ thousands of drivers, and the segment they represent in the public transport industry also directly have an impact on the livelihood of thousands upon thousands more, from barkers and starters, operators, and side street mechanics, to vendors and karinderya (small restaurants) owners and other informal sector workers.

In the last four years, however, jeepney drivers and operators have been threatened with loss of livelihood as the Duterte government pushed its so-called modernization scheme. Jeepneys are being blamed for the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the heavy traffic in the metro. Through the PUV Modernization Program, the government plans to phase out all “traditional jeepneys,” in place of all-imported, new and expensive “modern jeepneys.”

In a press statement by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), Sec. Arthur Tugade was quoted as saying “you (the drivers) can work, but do not kill the environment. Work, but take care not to destroy the next generation’s future.”

But are jeepneys really to blame for the country’s climate change problems?

Data from the Department of Energy (DOE) says otherwise. It shows power generation accounting for 52 percent of energy-related GHG emission in the country, while transportation accounting for only 28 percent in 2018.

Dirty emissions

Though our country contributes less than one percent of global GHG emissions, already, it has committed to cut it further by 70 percent by 2030. But how serious is the government in these efforts?

In terms of emission, coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel — a very dirty source of energy.  Burning coal generates by-products such as carbon dioxide, methane, particulates and oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, mercury, and a wide range of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals.

Aside from these, other by-products from coal combustion such as wastewater, ash, and leachate also discharge into the environment significant stressors such as selenium, mercury and arsenic to name a few.

In Calaca, Batangas, a coal-fired power plant (CFPP) was observed by fisherfolk to have caused a decline in fish catch due to the warming of water. Doctors also determined that widespread skin diseases and upper respiratory tract infection ailments plague residents living near the CFPP.

With the chemical and heavy metals released to the air and water by coal plants, it definitely is harmful to both the environment and the people’s health.

Unfortunately, coal has dominated the country’s power generation sector since the implementation of deregulation and privatization during the 1980s. 

Today, almost half of the country’s generated power comes from coal-fired power plants. As per the List of Power Plants by the DOE, there are 43 CFPPs in the country, as of 2018.

Duterte also extols coals dominance for the next 30 years. He said he was ready to open the country’s border for increased trading for big time coal as per an article in Bilyonaryo (an online publication) last July 15, 2020.

This declaration not only contradicts his earlier commitment to move away from coal power. It is also a 180-degree turnaround to his SONA 2019 declaration to “fast-track renewable energy resources to reduce the country’s dependence on traditional energy sources such as coal.”

So who’s really to blame for the climate change in the Philippines? Largely, it’s the coal-fired plants. Jeepneys are singled out as a ruse to cover for the real intent of the phase-out: not to alleviate environmental woes, but to push forward the self-serving business agenda of big and well-connected industry players.

Unjust, illogical 

In a media briefing of Citizens’ Urgent Response to End Covid-19 (CURE Covid) — a network of individuals and organizations dedicated to the socio-economic needs of Filipinos during the COVID-19 Pandemic – an expert in public transport and leaders of transports groups discussed the problems facing the sector.

“We can say that the government is taking advantage of the pandemic to force the implementation of the PUV Modernization Program at a time when our hands are tied due to the pandemic,” said Sandy Hachasco of Malayang Alyansa ng Bus Employees at Laborers (Manibela).

The transport leaders describe the Duterte administration as “heartless and indifferent” to the plight of drivers and small operators who were already suffering due to the three-month lockdown by arbitrarily forcing the jeepney phase-out .

In a Memorandum Circular 2020-017, jeepneys were the least in the priority of vehicles to operate. “Tourist bus and vans were prioritized before jeepneys. The LTFRB refuses to allow us to get back on the streets despite having our franchises that specify our routes, our franchises that we paid for and which went through process of approval,” Steve Ranjo of Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Operator Nationwide (Piston) said.

The think-tank Ibon Foundation said that each jeepney driver has lost an estimated P78,000 worth of possible earnings during (what was up to that point) the three-month lockdown.

The Covid-19 restrictions imposed on labor arrangements reveal that most workers do not have the option to work from home. Majority do not own a car or motorcycle. Riding a bike to work is only advisable for short distance travels. Aside from the heat and the bumpy roads, most streets do not have bike lanes. Train routes and train cars are limited. As a means for daily commute for ordinary workers, taxis and TNVS are impractical as they are expensive. Also, many routes are serviced by jeepneys alone.

Ibon has said that traditional jeepneys are safer against Covid-19 compared to its air-conditioned counterparts. Also, recent studies in China have shown that droplet transmissions are more likely to occur in enclose spaces and its circulation aided by air-conditioning. Regular ventilation, such as those found in jeepneys, reduces the risk of infection.

As early as March, jeepney drivers and operators have proactively undertaken innovations to ensure that physical distancing can still be observed inside jeepneys, among them the installation of seat designations that observe physical distancing.

At a time when physical distancing requires more utility vehicles in the streets be available to passengers for the implementation of this health protocol to be successful, the government has inexplicably banned jeepneys from the roads.

Metro Manila is now witness to drivers begging in the streets as the government continues to implement the jeepney ban. The Piston 6 — jeepney drivers arrested for protesting against the phase-out while observing health protocols — were detained for over a week for supposedly violating public health measures – a charge Piston denied. The arrest caused public outrage generated sympathy for the jeepney drivers.

Not at drivers’, small operators’ expense

“We want to clarify that we are not against modernization per se. In fact, we told the government to go ahead with the modernization that is applicable at the moment, and will t destroy the livelihood of small operators,” said George San Mateo of Piston.

Are the jeepney drivers and operators’ resistance to the PUV modernization program unfounded?

Modern jeepneys are too expensive. A single Euro 4, compliant “modern jeepney” cost between P1 million to P2 million. Even with the loan coming from Land Bank of the Philippines, the cost is way beyond the financial capacity of operators and drivers.

Single unit jeepney drivers/owners are asked to form cooperatives so they won’t lose their franchise. But in forming cooperatives, they are obliged to produce P800 per day, or P20,000 per month or more in the next seven years to amortize their bank loans. Jeepney drivers normally earn only P300-P600 daily.

Pre-pandemic scene inside a passenger jeepney. R. Jordan P. Santos

Also, only big businesses can get new franchises as franchise owners should have a minimum of 40 units.

Participatory and empowering

As in the case of all government modernization schemes, the so-called public transport improvement program of the government will affect workers such as those from the energy industries and transportation.   

What then are the alternatives to just phasing out jeepneys and rendering thousands of drivers jobless, with many having zero means of livelihood options?

A transition towards a green economy involving drivers and small operators should first and foremost prioritize the welfare of the people mostly affected by the shift. Social dialogue is essential. Social welfare programs that comprehensively support workers who will be among the hardest hit by the modernization supposedly for the purpose of greening the economy must be undertaken by the government.

A fair transition is a Just Transition. It is a holistic approach that combines social justice and climate solution.

Just Transition is specifically for workers and as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “it means that the burden of change that benefits everyone will not be placed disproportionately on a few. A just transition for all implies that responses to climate change and environmental sustainability should maximize opportunities for decent work creation and ensure social justice, rights and social protection for all leaving no one behind.”

Though the PUV modernization is said to be unjust, the Philippine government is actually not new to Just Transition as a concept and policy framework. A few years back, the Philippines was selected by the ILO for the pilot application of Just Transition together with Ghana and Uruguay. Though this is the case, the application of a humane transition remains to be seen.

Dr. Luna of the UP National Center for Transport Studies said the PUV modernization should not be arbitrary. He likened a just modernization program to a regular Filipino family improving their home. “As ordinary Filipinos have limited budgets, home renovations are done step-by-step to ensure that all important needs are given priority. Starting with the tiles, then the fixtures, the paint and so forth,” he explained. 

He suggested that traditional jeepneys should not be banned from servicing the public, but improvement should be done to enhance the quality of service.

He insisted that that the move from traditional to modern jeepneys should be voluntary, and should be financially supported by the government.

The think tank Ibon agrees.  “Aside from providing emergency aid to drivers and operators who suffered a loss of income for three months, government should also support drivers and operators in upgrading or replacing their units to meet safety, health and environmental standards,” it stated in a press release.

PW File Photo

Just transition

For decades, drivers and operators have been laboring to provide the Filipino people the cheapest and most accessible mass transport. They have been the lifeblood of the nation, linking communities to major thoroughfares, and individuals to the rest of society.

As with other impoverished sectors, leepney drivers and operators are also vulnerable to the effects of global warming. From the destruction of their food supplies, to calamities that destroy their houses and flooded the streets and their communities, they know and experience the harmful effects of a warming climate. Together with the rest of us, they see the need to protect and care for the environment.

But the transition should not cause the destruction of their means of livelihood that they and their families have depended on for decades. It is only just for the government to reward their decades of service to the Filipino people with a sustainable, green and pro-poor solution.

Only a transition that upholds the welfare and the dignity of workers, including jeepney drivers and small operators, can succeed in forging a just and sustainable low-carbon future in the transport sector of the country.