Building a sustainable future

Published November 22, 2021, 6:50 AM

by Vince Socco

All the talks in the last few days have been about climate change. And, okay, Philippine elections, too.  But I digress. In one of the largest international gatherings since the COVD-19 pandemic,  120 global leaders gathered in Glasgow to jump start a climate action program. It was a hopeful event fuelled mainly by the reengagement of the United States in the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP).

The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the COP21 in 2017. The goal of COP21 was to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. President Trump claimed that the terms of the climate agreement were not fair to the United States and that it gave countries like India and China an economic advantage over the USA. On the contrary, President Joe Biden almost immediately reversed the withdrawal from COP upon taking office in January this year. He reasserted the leadership role of the United States in the global climate movement. COP-26 in Glasgow was President Biden’sfirst attempt to steer the world towards the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Noticeably absent at the gathering, though, were two major players in the climate stage: President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. China is the largest coal producer and consumer in the world while Russia is one of the top carbon emitters and the leading exporter of natural gas. While the absence might be readily explained by self-imposed travel restrictions, President Biden readily referred to it as a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, the conference could be considered a qualified success.

The outcome? A joint agreement that struck a bit of mixed reactions. For one, the pledges by 151 countries fell short of the more aggressive goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. To put the world on track, emissions have to be cut in half by 2030. On a positive note, though, the nationally determined contributions are able to slow warming to 2.5°C, well below the 4°C prior to COP. I would say that’s a win. The ministers-in-attendance agreed to come together again in a year’s time to make stronger 2030 emission reduction targets.

Another mixed win was the commitment of developed countries to provide financing to support climate action in less developed countries. In 2009, rich countries committed to provide $100 billion a year through 2025. Unfortunately, it seems that this goal was not met in 2020. COP26 reaffirmed this commitment. In addiition, a larger climate finance goal was agreed to be put into place after 2025. I think that also qualifies as a win. The target for the fund after 2025 will be finalized in 2024.

One other conclusion was the agreement regarding coal-fired power. The final Glasgow Climate Pact raised strong reaction from certain sectors because the original wording of the agreement called for a “phase-out” of coal-fired power but was finally changed to a call for a “phase-down”. This was on the back of strong lobbying by India supported by China and other coal-dependent developing countries.

Developing countries that are currently experiencing bouyant economic growth have always doubted efforts by developed Western countries – whose own fossil fuel production has reached peak levels already – to cut coal output. While understandable, I think this is a clear setback. Unless dirty fuels are phased-out and clean energy adapted fully, the goal of reducing emissions will continue to elude us.

Beyond the Glasgow Climate Pact, other commitments were made at COP26 to curb methane emissions, to halt and reverse forest loss, align the finance sector with net-zero by 2050, ditch the internal combustion engine, accelerate the phase-out of coal, and end international financing for fossil fuels, to name just a few. Among these, the call to end the internal combustion engine will significantly impact the mobility sector. In fact, calls for the transition of the global car park to fully electric vehicles have been on the rise.

I contend that the shift to electric vehicles should be matched with the shift to clean energy. If not, the burden of reducing emissions is merely shifted from the tailpipe to the power plants and oil wells; it does not bring us closer to our goal of cutting greenhouse gases. In the Philippines, our electricity is still primarily coal-generated. Therefore, increasing electric vehicles will reduce the emissions of cars but will increase those of the power plants. Net, we may end up increasing emissions than reducing them.

I believe that we should take every step towards reducing emissions, today. There are solutions that are available and that should be adapted soonest. There is no need to hold-out for a more expansive solution that cannot as yet be deployed in a meaningful way. We have to act now.

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