“Prevention is better than cure”.
It is a statement that has applications not just on human health, but also on climate and environmental issues. For the Philippines, it serves as the basis for one of its most prominent positions in recent global climate negotiations: emissions avoidance.
The country first introduced emissions avoidance as a concept during the 2019 climate talks in Madrid, Spain. Since then, it has been championing for this to be adopted within the policymaking sphere under the Paris Agreement.
The ‘heart’ of mitigation
Mitigation refers to solutions that address the root of the climate crisis: excessive greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide and methane produced from human activities that lead to higher global temperatures and rapid changes in the climate. Much of the focus on climate change mitigation goes to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, the burning of which is responsible for the vast majority of GHGs emitted in the past 150 years.
While the just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is an inevitability and a necessity that should no longer be delayed through false solutions and political excuses, it is only one part of the whole picture of mitigation. These actions would contribute to the reduction of GHGs that would prevent future climate-related threats (e.g., typhoons, droughts, sea level rise) from becoming more extreme and inflicting even more loss and damage to communities and ecosystems.
Yet what is causing the past and recent climate-related disasters, the culprit for the 1.09 degrees Celsius of current global warming is GHGs that have already been emitted. This pollution needs to be subjected to removal from our atmosphere, oceans, and other parts of the environment through natural carbon sinks such as forests, mangroves, and other ecosystems capable of absorbing carbon dioxide.
However, if taken on its own, the current fast rise in GHG emissions could also be too much for said sinks, which are also living systems, as they would become more vulnerable to higher temperatures and the resulting changes in their environment. Many of the proposed artificial systems built for capturing and storing GHGs also lack consensus approval by scientists regarding their safety and costs and could even cause large-scale damages to nearby areas.
It should be noted that a diversity of solutions must be implemented together to maximize their economic, environmental, and social benefits and reduce costs. For instance, phasing out a coal-fired power plant in a given area is not enough; it should come with plans for replacing it with a solar power plant and restoring nearby forests.
Yet there is a third piece of the mitigation picture that should be considered: emissions avoidance. To put this in perspective, why do we have to recycle plastic bags when we can avoid using them and go for eco-bags instead? Why should some government officials keep focusing on improving response to calamities when they should be prioritizing solutions to prevent disasters from happening in the first place?
As it stands, emissions avoidance is defined as “the full displacement or prevention of GHG emissions expected to be generated by planned GHG emitting actions in energy, transport, manufacturing, agriculture, human induced deforestation, and other GHG emitting development activities”.
In the details
Article 6 of the Paris Agreement establishes a global market where mitigation solutions by countries can earn them carbon credits that they can trade for them to achieve their respective targets for addressing the climate crisis. It is a market built on voluntary cooperation among nations that, if implemented properly, can result in the removal of 50% more emissions without any additional cost.
If adopted, emissions avoidance would largely fall under this category. This brings up an interesting question: how can a country be credited for addressing emissions that never happened?
Under the Philippines’s current proposal, emissions avoidance can be credited if a developing country prevents the implementation of a planned project that would have otherwise led to significant GHG emissions. Examples of this include a planned gas-fired power plant or a project that would have turned forests into agricultural lands or residential subdivisions.
As one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, the Philippines has a right to pursue development, especially considering that so-called “First World” nations benefited from the pollutive development pathways that led to the climate crisis to begin with. Yet many of the current available modes of development are GHG-intensive.
This forms part of the basis of the nation’s call for climate justice: for developed countries to recognize and act on their responsibility to aid developing countries who unjustly suffer climate-related loss and damage. While receiving compensation and restitution through loss and damage finance, which was officially agreed at the most recent climate negotiations in Egypt, is vital for this call, it is not enough. As previously mentioned, the diversity of solutions matters.
Emissions avoidance serves as a way for the Philippines to secure capacity-building mechanisms and technologies to fuel its transformation towards a sustainably-developed economy and society. Technological advancements helped drive the development of Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, which it hopes to follow.
The science is clear: we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a level scientists consider as a tipping point when the impacts of the climate crisis may start becoming irreversible. To even have a chance to achieve this, our world for the rest of this century can only emit GHGs equivalent to one-eighth of the pollution released in the past 150 years. Avoiding emissions is a necessity.
There is still so much that needs to be debated about this concept, especially on the technical details and procedures. Yet the Philippines has repeatedly been an influential role in global climate negotiations and policymaking. Emissions avoidance represents an opportunity for the nation to once more be a game-changer.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
John Leo Algo is a member of the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. He is a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and a current representative of Philippine civil society and the youth at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.