PH climate measures lack urgency despite vulnerable status, experts say

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 14 2019 09:05 PM | Updated as of Oct 16 2019 07:44 PM

(UPDATED) Following the recent United Nations climate summit in New York, experts reminded world leaders of the urgency to phase out coal power generation and other emissions-generating activities. 

According to global think-tank Climate Analytics, the Philippines is not doing enough to adhere to the Paris Agreement, a 2015 climate pact signed by nations to address climate change by curbing carbon emissions and other harmful activities. 

“We find that Philippines has a long way to go to halt emissions growth and get into a Paris Agreement compatible pathway,” climate policy analyst Paola Parra told ABS-CBN News through an online correspondence two days after the UN Climate Action Summit last Sept. 23.

 “A clear example is the electricity sector, where there are plans to continue increasing substantially the role of coal, locking-in the country into a carbon intensive pathway for decades,” wrote Parra, who is the Decarbonisation Strategies Team Lead for Climate Analytics, a global non-profit climate science and policy institute that has done extensive research and reports on the effectiveness of national climate policies.

In a forum during the Climate Week in New York, Parra led a Climate Analytics discussion on what countries can do to hit targets such as phasing out coal.

Parra said carbon emissions should peak at 2020 if the world wants to limit global heating by 1.5 degrees Celsius. At this level, the occurrence of severe heatwaves and droughts can be reduced.

Parra said the world should have also reached net zero by 2070 when it comes to emissions. This means that either countries have eliminated carbon emissions or emissions have been balanced by offsetting it with carbon-removal methods such as tree planting. However, she said countries should reach carbon dioxide net neutrality at a much earlier date.

LESS AMBITIOUS

Currently, Climate Analytics classifies the Philippines, based on its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) document submitted in 2015, as compatible with the two degrees Celsius goal, which is considered still too high to be consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The INDC states the Philippines’ pledge to reduce emissions by 70 percent below business as usual (BAU) levels by 2030. However, this is a conditional target that is reliant on matching financial support from developed countries.

“We assess both current targets and projected emissions levels for the Philippines and find that there is a lot of uncertainty around the way that the Philippines defined its NDC (nationally determined contributions) target, and very little transparency around the underlying BAU scenario behind it, as well as the contribution of different sectors to the achievement of the NDC,” Parra told ABS-CBN News.

“In addition, the draft document from the Climate Change Commission shows a seemingly less ambitious target, which goes completely against the spirit of the Paris Agreement ambitious cycle,” she said.

However, the Climate Change Commission (CCC), through a letter, told ABS-CBN that the commitment is "within the range of what is considered to be a fair share of global effort."

The CCC also assured that "upon the ratification to the Paris Agreement, the administration made it clear that the Philippines will re-submit its NDC, making the INDC [its] unofficial submission."

While several nations increased their climate pledges last month - from extensive use of renewable energy to the ban of coal plants, the Philippines, which used to play a more high-profile role among climate-vulnerable countries, did not give any statement and did not send a high-level delegation to the UN Climate Action Summit.

As the Philippines has yet to re-submit its NDC, global think-tank Climate Analytics expressed concern over the country’s energy policy.

DIRTY ENERGY

Parra and Climate Analytics estimate that the “massive expansion of coal-fired power plants” in the Philippines would mean that coal power generation in the country will only “peak” by 2035 and phased out by 2062.

“This far exceeds the phase-out date derived from regional benchmarks for Paris Agreement compatible scenarios, which sees coal-fired power being phased out in the ASEAN region at the latest by 2040,” Parra said.

Coal is the biggest contributor to human-made climate change as its continued combustion releases carbon dioxide in an increasingly warmer atmosphere.

A report released last August of research group Fitch Solutions says the Philippines’ energy industry expansions will continue to be driven by coal.

Source: Fitch Solutions

The report said that while renewable energy will increase, coal remains dominant and will represent 59 percent of the country’s power mix by 2028 based on Fitch Solutions’ forecast.

It also cited the government’s approval of several coal plant projects such as the supercritical “clean” coal-fired power plants in Bataan and Atimonan, Quezon. These power plants are considered more efficient but not necessarily emission-free.

While the Philippines is not a high-emitter country, for the Paris Agreement plan to work, all countries need to contribute.

Parra said the Philippines’ continued plans to tap coal “stands in stark contrast with the sense of urgency that one would expect considering that the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change impacts in the world.”

It also goes against the trend as planned projects for coal shrunk by 75 percent globally in the last five years, according to Parra.

A May 2019 report of Climate Analytics on the Southeast Asian region states that while renewable energy share is decreasing in the Philippines (from 26 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2015).

In its letter, the Climate Change Commission acknowledged the effects of climate change on human populations and ecosystems. 

"Severe flooding and more intense typhoons, for example, become the new normal. Extreme temperatures are also manifestations of climate change, increasing the number of cold days in cold areas, such as in the United States, or the number of very warm days, such as in the tropics like the Philippines," it said.

It cited the Paris Agreement and how nations agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions but at the same time recognizing "the need for the developing countries to reach the maximum potential of economic development."

"As stated under Article 4 of the [Paris] Agreement, 'peaking [of greenhouse gas emissions] will take longer for developing country parties' like the Philippines," CCC said.

"The right of developing countries to development space must be respected. Given the means, the country is more than ready to transition to low-carbon and sustainable development," the agency said. "But addressing the impacts of climate change requires our undivided attention. Therefore, the Philippines put forth adaptation as the core of our long-term development strategies and has promoted national climate policies to avert losses and build our resilience."

The agency said greater and more ambitious efforts to reduce emissions will come from developed nations "given their means and historical responsibility to the accumulation of [greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere."

It also pointed out that the current greenhouse gases footprint of the Philippines is at 0.3 percent - "small compared to the contribution of industrial countries of the world, but our geographical location makes us one of the most vulnerable countries."

Meanwhile, Red Constantino, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, said they cannot comment on the numbers until the government officially submits its new NDC.

“Government is in serious debates and this is welcome. The agencies need space to duke things out as we have always insisted the NDC is the country’s new industrial investment strategy,” he told ABS-CBN News.

Constantino said there is no reason to reduce the Philippines’ conditional target as “in effect, we would be reducing what those historically responsible are obliged to provide.”

“Instead, we must increase the conditional target, even as we offer a separate unconditional one, to show what we are already doing and to shame big emitters into cutting emissions far more and far earlier,” he said.

ABS-CBN News reached out to the Department of Energy for comments but it has yet to receive its reply, as of this updated posting.

It is unclear when the Philippine government will be submitting its updated NDC but all countries are expected to submit more ambitious goals by 2020. 

LIMITATIONS

Climate Analytics said the global outlook is not positive as well with only a few countries making ambitious pledges.

Parra said the world is still far from reaching peak coal emissions, which should ideally be done by 2020.

At least 67 countries have pledged to enhance their climate commitments by 2020 at the historic UN Climate Action Summit in New York last month, which saw Pope Francis and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg criticize the world for insufficient climate action.

However, many of these are developing countries and in total, the 67 only represent eight percent of global emissions. In addition to these, 14 countries - many from Europe, representing 10.1 percent of emissions, promised to update their commitments next year.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia's executive director Yeb Sano described the promises of world leaders at the summit as "weak" or "empty."

He called it a betrayal of the young people who led climate strikes all over the world and "against the people at the frontlines who experience the most severe impacts of climate change."

Agreeing with Thunberg, Sano said the main takeaway at the high-profile event is that "the people cannot forgive the complicity of governments for failing to take action and for continuing to disappoint."

Climate Analytics senior policy analyst Claire Stockwell said the current level of commitment around the world is “insufficient.”

Parra said it is a product of the very nature of the Paris Agreement, which takes on a bottom-up approach.

It meant that it was possible to gather everyone and make them offer whatever they can deliver.

“The price of that is nobody knew how many countries will commit,” Parra said. “You are waiting to see what was happening.”

Parra pointed out that nations will need to step up and at the same time adapt appropriate plans that will allow them to reach global climate targets.

For Southeast Asia, Climate Analytics projects a need to reach zero emissions by 2050 through a long-term plan to use 100 percent renewable energy power generation and other measures.

“Even if we stop building coal power plants today, it’s still not enough to retire power plants earlier,” Parra warned.

“What we need is transformational change,” Stockwell said, adding that the next year or so leading to the 2020 climate negotiations will be crucial for governments to figure out how to drastically restructure their industries to meet climate targets.