[OPINION] 2021: The year of ambition, not enough action for environment

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] 2021: The year of ambition, not enough action for environment
'As we look back at the past 12 months, it is painfully clear that our leaders have not listened to the cries of the earth and the poor'

If there is one word that defined 2021 in terms of the green agenda, it would be “ambition.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year provided only a temporary relief for our climate and environment. It also slowed down the implementation of global and local strategies to address issues such as the climate crisis and plastic pollution, delaying many of them to this year.

With significant losses of lives and livelihoods and damages to settlements and the environment, calls got louder around the world for higher targets, more urgency, and stronger leadership in solving these problems.   

As we look back at the past 12 months, it is painfully clear that our leaders have not listened to the cries of the earth and the poor. 

Look no further than the 2021 UN climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, which literally had “higher ambition” as one of its major themes. Just months prior, a global report revealed that without drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius on or before 2040. 

For the Philippines, any higher temperature increase could only lead to higher loss and damage from stronger typhoons, more intense droughts, sea level rise, and other impacts. The impacts of Typhoon Odette, a Category 5 storm like Yolanda eight years ago, on central and southern provinces is another reminder that we should never be complacent about the climate crisis.

After two weeks of negotiations, new pledges were made by nations on ending the era of fossil fuels. More finance was allocated for renewable energy (RE) development, adaptation of vulnerable countries like the Philippines, and protecting forests and other ecosystems. Government and business leaders delivered speeches, shook hands, and had their photos taken with the whole world watching.

Yet all these new promises would still result in a world warmer by 2.4 degrees Celsius, way above the 1.5-degree target. If ambition is already not enough, how much better would our actions fare in facing arguably the gravest threat of our lifetime?

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Not high enough

In 2021, the Philippines has not done any better in either ambition or action against climate and environmental issues. This is not necessarily due to a lack of effort or initiative from advocates and experts; the disappointing green governance remains because of the same bureaucratic flaws that renders many policies and programs not as effective as they should be. 

For instance, the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions to address local climate change impacts was finalized after years of delay. At first glance, its primary target of reducing emissions of pollutants like carbon dioxide by 75% within the current decade seems ambitious. However, the lack of a clear-cut pathway and set of programs across different sectors to achieve this, even after repeated delays, remains a head-scratcher that could cost the country in the long run.

Arguably the most important transformation to make the Philippines climate-resilient must take place in its energy sector. Observations during this year indicate that the current administration has commitment issues regarding the necessary just transition towards a RE-powered economy and society. 

Despite having a moratorium on new coal plants and finally fully implementing the RE Act more than a decade after being enacted into law, public officials are looking into another fossil fuel to boost the country’s power grid. Some legislators and lobbyists are pushing for the expansion of the use of natural gas, claiming it to be the ideal transition fuel between coal and RE. However, doing so could not only harm the Philippines’s commitment to reduce its pollution; consumers would likely pay even higher electricity fees, which is already the second most expensive in Asia.

In Congress, we observed pushes for key legislation to deal with long-running environmental issues. Among them is a bill proposing to phase out single-use plastics, which has been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Along with 500 local governments banning plastics within their jurisdictions as of August, its enactment would bring the nation a big step closer towards a circular economy. 

However, other bills on national land use and sustainable forest management, among others still lack any meaningful progress. The establishment of a Department of Disaster Resilience is still unrealized despite the Duterte regime making it a priority. Although passed by the lower House, its creation has been met with opposition from critics claiming that it would further centralize power for an issue that requires strong local governance.

The Philippines also remains Asia’s deadliest country for environmental defenders for the eighth straight year. Stories of vulnerable communities, especially indigenous peoples, being either displaced or adversely affected by projects such as mining and construction of dams continue to surface, placing doubts on whether these activities can truly contribute towards attaining sustainable development. 

Perhaps the recognition of the UN Human Rights Council this year of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right would jumpstart a reversal of this trend in the Philippines. So would the release of the final report by the Commission on Human Rights on its National Inquiry on Climate Change, which showed that corporations can be held legally accountable for their role in causing the climate crisis and the suffering it brings to peoples.

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Looking ahead

The first half of 2022 would be dominated by ambitious candidates presenting their platforms to the Filipino nation to secure victory in the upcoming national and local elections. The green agenda must be a priority agenda during this season, in recognition of the reality that planetary and peoples’ health is necessary for sustainable development. Whoever claims elected positions must build on the successes and learn from failures of previous administrations to take care of our climate and environment.

By this time next year, would we read the same headlines and analyses, just with different years and names? Or would we see ambition finally turned into meaningful change? 

Honestly, that is unlikely. But for our sake, we must hope for the better. – Rappler.com

John Leo Algo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been representing Philippine civil society in regional and global UN conferences on climate and the environment since 2017. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016.