Carbon mitigation or climate catastrophe

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EARLIER this year, in September, the United Nations reflected the growing anxieties of the world by sponsoring the leaders’ summit on climate change, the central issue of human survival in the 21st century.

A few days from now, we will know if the UN’s anxieties have been taken to heart by delegates to the 20th annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima, Peru. They will continue the negotiations toward a new global climate agreement that, all hope, will be approved in the COP21 in December 2015 in Paris, entering into force by 2020.

The negotiations will focus on creating a path that would diminish the emissions gap, the gap between reduction pledges and the necessary emission cuts to maintain global warming below 2 degrees centigrade, the tipping point which the scientific community believes would trigger an irreversible slide toward climate catastrophe.

Today, there is absolutely no scientific reservation about this horrifying trajectory. Over the past five years, scientific understanding of climate change impacts and their causes has significantly advanced. And the scale of the problem is such that a solution is possible only if nations and societies declare, in effect, a total war against the first cause of climate change: carbon dioxide emissions.


The Philippines is not a significant emitter. But as the world’s third nation most vulnerable to powerful weather anomalies and natural disasters, the Philippines has a survival stake in the outcome of the Lima conference.

The fact is that human civilization is in a deadly and suicidal race between mitigation and catastrophe. Global temperature is overheating. And if this overheating is not abated soon enough, many of our country’s island and coastal communities could perish.

For the first time in history, human beings today are breathing air that contains 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon emissions. This unprecedented concentration of carbon has been building up since the early 20th century. The result is that we are experiencing an average temperature rise of 0.8 degree Celsius in global air and sea surface temperatures, with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980.

As temperature rises, there will be even more alarming climate impacts. This is why the frequency and intensity of natural disasters across the globe are increasing, along with their costs in terms of human life loss, property destruction and economic disruption.

There are massive hidden costs, too. Nations must contend with a number of risks – pollution-caused ailments, fuel insecurity, food scarcity and geo-political tensions and conflicts over natural resources. Already, China and our neighboring Asean countries are staking conflicting claims over atolls and reefs in the Pacific Ocean because of their vast potentials in oil, gas and minerals.

To avoid climate catastrophe, the bottomline is that the human species must stop polluting the environment. And this means that we must increasingly turn to clean and renewable sources of energy.

As a historical fact, coal and oil have fuelled much of human progress over the last two centuries. But today, coal and oil lie at the heart of the modern world’s environmental predicament. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use are the largest driver of global warming, with coal as the greatest single component to this warming.

Carbon merchants maintain that coal remains the cheapest energy source in the market. But once the externalities of coal are factored in—such as the costs of pollution and healthcare—the price of coal would be extremely high and uneconomic.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that there is some $400 billion worth of subsidies devoted to coal and fossil fuels. This is a staggering amount of subsidies, and they distort not only the market but impose powerful barriers—economic, political and psychological—that undermine the development of clean, alternative sources of energy.

These barriers and the myth of cheap coal continue to discourage the accelerated development of renewable energy. We must therefore help shape the policy instruments to overcome these barriers. And we should be transparent and candid about the terrible burdens that coal imposes on our environment and the health of our people.

In the long sweep of human history, individual men and women, moved only by a liberating vision, ignited civil movements that played a decisive role in social and political transformation. They succeeded in their crusades because, in the end, it was the moral and the right thing to do.

Today, our generation is called upon to advance another great crusade – one that involves a life and death struggle to preserve the only habitat humans have ever known.

The crucial question is: Are we too late to mitigate global warming?

Rapid carbon cuts are the only way to stop severe impact of climate change. All adaptation strategies in the world cannot prevent global warming. Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chairman, believes that we have only very limited time, perhaps a few decades, to transition to a low-carbon growth path.

Lima is therefore a pivotal turning point: If there is no successful negotiations there, there will be no agreement in Paris next year. This means that “the door to [holding temperatures to 2°C of warming]will be closed forever,” in the vivid phrase of Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

(Heherson T. Alvarez, headed the Senate Committee on Environment for 10 years. He is now a commissioner of the Climate Change Commission. He organized the 1st Climate Change Conference in Asia participated in by 32 ministers and three heads of government in February 1995 in Manila, before the 1st COP in Berlin of December 1995.)

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