Back to basics with carbon dioxide

by Dalena Rabacal

When we say “ang init naman sa Pilipinas!”, what does this really mean? We learned a lot about how the Sun is providing warmth to the Earth. But is what we are experiencing still natural? What, then, is causing this intense heat? At this point, we’re probably all familiar with carbon emissions and how it causes global warming, but it’s worth reviewing the basics. So let’s revisit carbon dioxide and dive deeper into one of the primary causes of our situation today. 

To begin with, we must keep in mind that carbon dioxide has always been an important part of life.  In processes such as photosynthesis, carbon dioxide acts as a raw material that fuels plants’  food production.  It is also involved in the process that provides oxygen for all of humanity and other organisms. Carbon dioxide is also a fundamental part of the Earth’s carbon cycle present in the oceans, atmosphere, soil, animals, and plants. So, how does too much of it lead to disaster? 

Ever since fossil fuels — first coal, then oil and gas — were introduced during the Industrial Revolution, human-related emissions have disrupted the natural carbon cycle. Companies and industries, driven mainly by profit, began emitting massive amounts of CO2. Unfortunately, such environmentally-degrading practice has been carried on up to this day with fossil fuels still being used for energy, transportation, industrial processes, and the (over)production of goods. Aside from factory production, our simple day-to-day lives could also contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions without us even knowing. This has strained nature’s innate ability to store carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through the natural carbon sinks in our soils, forests, and seas. Disruption of the natural processes of CO2 places our present and future at risk.

However, because of the profit-oriented system at work, companies just continue to profit off of the products, goods, and services with little concern for people and planet.

Carbon dioxide was responsible for 74.4 percent of the global greenhouse gas emission in 2016. This results in potentially irreversible negative effects that are currently being experienced globally. These effects include global warming, melting of polar ice caps, warming of the oceans, intensified and more frequent natural disasters, extreme drought, forest fires, and many more. In many ways, it’s like being placed in a hot pot that’s gradually heating up. Unless we’re paying close attention, we might not notice that the pot is becoming so hot that we will die in it if we don’t do anything.

How much carbon have we emitted as one planet? To put it into perspective, six billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted by the entire planet annually during the 1950s. By 1990, CO2 emission rose drastically by nearly four times to 22 billion tonnes emitted each year, with the United States and Europe accounting for 90 percent of the total record.

In the following years, China followed their steps and, likewise, showed a significant increase in their CO2 emission. Now, almost 40 billion tonnes of CO2 are being emitted by all countries worldwide (United States and Europe still accounting for one-third of global emissions), and with current trends, we have yet to reach peak emissions.  

The massive CO2 emissions of the United States of America, the European Union, and China makes them accountable for the worsening climate conditions of the vulnerable countries in the world. This further highlights why it is important for these countries to initiate immediate action to combat the climate crisis, as well as pay their debt to the most impacted countries. Hence, if we are aiming for a more sustainable solution to this crisis, change must begin from these corporations; encourage them to do big. 

The Philippines is among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Data shows that a lot of areas within the country will be submerged within a few years as the sea level continues to rise. Yes, it is not a fictional story of the lost city of Atlantis underwater — the City of Manila could very well be our own Atlantis.  

What is the data of the Philippines’ carbon dioxide contributions? In 2020, the recorded amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the Philippines is 127.23 metric tonnes of CO2. Most of these emissions are from combustion of fossil fuels and cement manufacturing activities. They include carbon dioxide produced during the consumption of solid, liquid, and gas fuels and gas flaring (a gas combustion device used in industrial plants such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and natural gas processing plants).

In 2020, the Philippines changed its goal from reducing 70% Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in 2017 to 75%. This took place when the country’s first Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) were finally authorized under the Duterte administration. NDCs are the heart of the Paris Agreement and contain each countries’ pledge to develop and achieve low carbon emission to fight climate change and to ensure resilient development. The NDC aims to transition the fossil-fuel-driven economies of countries worldwide within this decade and limit the global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with the aim of limiting it to 1.5 degree Celsius. 

Did you think that NDCs could solve the Philippines’ sufferings as a vulnerable country amid the climate crisis? Think again. Although a step in the right direction has been made in submitting the NDCs, there’s still a lot to improve upon. Here’s why: For one, the vast majority of our NDCs are conditional — meaning they will not happen unless external support is provided. In fact, 72.29 of the 75% emissions reduction target is conditional.

There are two sides to this coin:  On one hand, it is true that we do need support from the international community when it comes to technology transfer and matters alike. In this case, our government must actively pursue reparations from the Global North and exact their debt to countries like the Philippines so that we can develop in line with Paris’s goals. On the other hand, the government must also prioritize climate adaptation and mitigation in its own capacity, and allocate adequate funds for these initiatives. It is clear, however, that this is far from the government’s priorities as of the moment. It’s not even just about prioritizing our pandemic response — not when so many hospitals are facing budget cuts. 

Another issue with the NDCs is the fact that some of the very few unconditional programs are problematic in their own right; one example would be the Jeepney Modernization program, which includes replacing our jeepneys with supposedly “cleaner” models (that still use fossil fuels) at the expense of the jeepney drivers and small operators. Without programs that address the needs of the vulnerable sectors such as the jeepney drivers, these supposedly environment-friendly initiatives will only become an additional inconvenience, if not outright offensive, to the Filipino people. 

Lastly, even if we had a spotless set of NDCs, monitoring them closely is a must to have an improvement in our national response to the climate crisis.  Environmental activists around the country continue to call for their respective governments to do more and are continually urging to increase the efforts to transform our society into something pro-people and pro-planet. Unfortunately, in the Philippines, environmental defenders such as our  the Indigenous peoples are being silenced and being robbed of their ancestral lands. More than the fight for climate justice, we must not be afraid and strengthen our campaign to stop the attacks on our activists. 

We have no time to lose. We cannot wait for another day, month, nor year, as every second counts when the ice caps continue to melt and the temperature continues to rise; and of course, the impacts of the climate crisis are here today, in our massive floods, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires across the world. 

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases might be the steering wheel of the climate crisis, but we must focus on those who are behind it. Let’s continue to educate one another, get organized, and maximize all possible avenues to produce an alternative to the devastation we are experiencing today.

This article is part of the Spotlight series by YACAP’s Education Committee which talks about various issues related to climate and climate action.

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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