climate change

[OPINION] Should the Philippines commit to ‘net-zero’ for climate action?

John Leo C. Algo

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[OPINION] Should the Philippines commit to ‘net-zero’ for climate action?
'When it comes to climate action, being neutral is not enough'

“Net-zero emissions” is quickly becoming one of the emerging prominent climate issues in both the Philippine and global context. This term refers to a state when the amount of emitted greenhouse gases (GHGs, like carbon dioxide) by a country or company is matched by how much of said pollution they cleaned from the environment, and is increasingly recognized in both the public and private sector. 

Last June, the Philippines expressed its support for achieving net-zero emissions in the shipping industry by 2050. A few weeks later, the International Maritime Organization finalized a plan for a cleaner shipping sector, the latest in a growing list of global promises to mitigate climate change.  

Several national conglomerates are also expressing recent net-zero pledges. A few weeks ago, SM Prime committed to achieve this by 2040 through promoting renewable energy (RE) and energy efficiency, and protecting forests. Last June, San Miguel Corporation revealed its 2050 net-zero plan to include poverty alleviation, circularity-related practices, and more sustainable supply chains.

These signals at the national level may indicate that the Philippines is ready for a net-zero commitment. But should it?

What ‘net-zero’ should be

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that net-zero carbon dioxide emissions need to be achieved by 2050 for global warming to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. This level of warming is regarded as a point that, if surpassed, would lead to more irreversible and destructive climate change impacts.

It must be remembered that the vast majority of GHGs comes only from a handful of countries, most notably China, India, the United States, and European nations. This means that the burden of reducing such pollution should be on these countries and not on minor contributors like the Philippines, as part of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities.”

Yet the Philippines should still mitigate its own pollution. As an industrializing nation that is also among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, it has the imperative to avoid repeating the same pollutive development pathways of high-income countries that caused this problem. A cleaner development pathway also provides numerous socioeconomic opportunities that would enable our country to achieve its national development goals and targets.

What this means is that the Philippines should not be pressured or required by developed countries to be on the same timeline of lowering its pollution as them, given how much smaller our contribution to this crisis and our capacity and resources are. This is also part of our national narrative as we call for climate justice at the global negotiations, reflected through our positions on different issues.

In 2021, the Philippines submitted its first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) where it committed to reduce its GHG emissions by 75% within the current decade, relative to a “business-as-usual” scenario. Out of this figure, 72.29% is considered as “conditional,” meaning it requires financial, technological, and capacity-building support from developed countries to implement solutions. 

The NDC was notably missing key details and pledges that were otherwise expected to appear, such as a net-zero commitment. As the country included a statement to have its emissions peak by 2030 before a steady decline, even an aspirational net-zero emissions pledge by 2050 or later would arguably still fit with what the government was presenting; this makes said absence even more outstanding.

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Part of the reasons why this did not occur may have been due to the state of our forestry sector, which is needed for the other half of the net-zero equation. Projections show that this sector could become an emitter of GHGs instead of removing them by 2030, as forests, mangroves, and other natural carbon sinks would be adversely affected by rising temperatures without proper solutions.   

This also puts into fair question how corporations intend to achieve their promised targets, especially as many in the Philippines or abroad are exploring the use of artificial technologies for carbon capture and storage. Even the IPCC has stated that many of these supposed solutions are still unproven to be effective if deployed at large scales, and could instead cause harm to communities and ecosystems alike. 

As long as corporations continue to fund and/or support even more usage of any kind of fossil fuels, to which the government’s current policy direction is headed through promoting natural gas, their promise is likely to remain just that. The last thing our nation and collective future needs is a dose of greenwashing and false solutions.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a net-zero emissions target. After all, for any climate change mitigation strategy to work, it has to first reach net-zero before achieving an overall net decrease in GHG emissions in our environment. 

But that is precisely the point: it only works if countries and corporations both reduce and avoid further emissions, and remove the pollution that is already in our environment. It should not be used as an excuse to keep going “business-as-usual” because that clearly would lead to even more disasters, higher costs, and heavier burdens that would be unjustly shouldered by the most vulnerable peoples and destroy our biodiversity and ecosystems.

Furthermore, net-zero should not be regarded as the end goal of the Philippines’s sustainability plans; it is rather a step along the way, an indicator of how soon an entity can start cleaning the climate more than polluting it.

When it comes to climate action, being neutral is not enough. Only a drastic decarbonization would enable us to achieve the kind of sustainable development Filipinos deserve. –

John Leo Algo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines, a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas, and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. He has been a climate and environment journalist since 2016.

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