climate change

[OPINION] ‘Net-zero’ and big polluters’ false solutions

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] ‘Net-zero’ and big polluters’ false solutions

Illustration by Guia Abogado

[I]f examined closely, the big polluters may not be as serious in addressing the climate crisis as they say they are

The rainy season has officially started in the Philippines. It is the time when climate change introduces itself yet again to many Filipinos, and most news outlets bother to mention it. With memories of Rolly and Ulysses still fresh in our minds, our nation braces itself once again for more extreme climatic hazards while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the global level, however, countries are preparing for the 2021 UN climate conference in Glasgow, United Kingdom. With carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rising despite a global health crisis and impacts worsening around the world, this year’s summit figures to be the most important since the Paris Agreement was adopted in the 2015 meeting.   

One of the terms becoming widely accepted in policy dialogues is “net-zero.” This is the state when the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs, such as carbon dioxide) that are released from a source is the same as the amount removed from the atmosphere. 

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To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which if exceeded likely leads to irreversible loss and damage, the world must achieve net-zero by 2050. How to achieve this is poised to be a priority in the Glasgow climate summit. 

It is no secret that only 100 corporations, many of whom have significant presences in the Philippines, are responsible for 71% of GHG emissions. To prevent more Rolly’s and Ulysses’s from harming communities, to avoid higher sea level rise and even higher temperatures in our future, these so-called “big polluters” must actively reduce their emissions. 

On the surface, it seems like corporations are on board with stopping the climate crisis. Over 1,500 corporations have recently pledged net-zero commitments, including Shell, Apple, Amazon, and Nestle. But if examined closely, the big polluters may not be as serious in addressing the climate crisis as they say they are.

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For decades, the fossil fuel industry has been misinforming the public about the harmful effects of their operations on communities and the environment for the sake of profits. This is similar to how the tobacco industry lied about the effects of cigarette smoking, or how the plastics industry claims that a “circular economy” does not make sense without single-use plastics. 

In the Philippines, the lobbying of coal interests is one of the primary reasons why the development of renewable energy remains painfully slow. The prevalence of coal-fired power plants in the national energy system, some of which are old and inflexible, is a main reason for not only high electricity prices for consumers, but also shortages in supply to the grid. 

But now the big polluters are advocating for net-zero policies to be implemented to avoid reducing their pollution, which is expensive to do in their current business models. Instead, they aim to set themselves as funders and developers of artificial technologies to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

An example of this technology is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which allows for capturing and storing GHG emissions from facilities such as coal-fired power plants. This is part of the premise proposed by companies in the Philippines to push for “clean coal” as part of the country’s cleaner energy transition. However, many CCS technologies are currently used to allow for deeper extraction of fossil fuel reserves, including coal and oil. Furthermore, the processes involved actually require more use of dirty energy to operate; this only heightens the risk of lost livelihoods, respiratory diseases, and loss of biodiversity, as has already been observed in many locales in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Big polluters are also angling to include “nature-based solutions,” or actions that sustainably manages ecosystems while simultaneously providing benefits for environmental health and peoples’ well-being. Yet the ambiguity of the term allows them to brand under this category projects such as large-scale monoscale plantations and afforestation. Not only can these perpetrate injustices for local communities and lead to ecosystems degradation, but they will also justify the further use of fossil fuels and its harmful impacts. 

For a nation with a vast wealth of ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources, the Philippines must avoid investing in these false solutions. It must strengthen its programs for rainforestation, protection of key biodiversity areas, and other measures for enhancing climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

It is also telling that decades into the climate debate and years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the net-zero pledges of big polluters remain nothing more than lip service. While they have announced a target year, many of these corporations fail to declare any clear just transition plans for reducing their pollution, including effects on their workforce and a cost-benefit analysis of such a process. 

This signifies their intent to merely maintain the status quo, to continue with their energy-intensive production systems under the guise of a genuine commitment to planetary health and sustainability.

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Collecting the climate debt

As one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, the Philippines is owed finance, technologies, and other means for implementing its measures to reach net-zero. This should come from developed nations, whose economic progress largely benefited from the operations of the big polluters, as stated under the Paris Agreement.

The Philippine government, through the leadership of the Climate Change Commission (CCC), must secure these modes of support not through costly loans, but rather grants from development assistance organizations and multilateral financing institutions. It must also improve its implementation of climate and environmental laws and policies, and enhance standards and guidelines for sustainability; this should improve compliance and transparency from corporations. 

Furthermore, current and future administrations need to adopt a more decisive approach to decarbonizing its agriculture, waste, industry, transport, and energy sectors. Avoiding more GHG emissions is more beneficial than placing the country’s future on expensive, pollutive technologies whose costs would be shouldered by the Filipino people. As shown by the pandemic and will be repeatedly proven by the climate crisis, prioritizing environmental and people’s health is a necessity to achieve climate justice and national sustainable development. –

John Leo 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 a citizen journalist and writer on climate and environmental stories since 2016.

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