Bearing the Carbon Sin

While we recognize that personal responsibility is an important step in addressing the climate crisis (CC), to berate ourselves and others for not doing enough to solve the problem, is a distraction from the fundamental culprit of CC — the energy sector and the fossil fuel industry.

Am I doing enough? This is a common question we ask ourselves when we bring up climate action. The damages brought by typhoons, the agricultural loss due to shifts in seasons, and the increasing rise in temperature, make climate change (CC) a phenomenon hard to ignore—it’s a lived experience for Filipinos. And so with a heightened worry about the crisis, more and more are taking action in their own little ways. Recently, climate scientists protesting against the continued funding of the fossil fuel industry made headline news.  People took to social media to spark calls in adopting lifestyle adjustments that would reduce carbon emissions. Actions would range from unplugging appliances left unused to deleting unwanted emails. Countless articles are written online outlining practices on how we can do our part in saving Earth. It’s a repeated phrase that “Protecting Our Planet Starts with You”. As children in the classroom, we have already been taught the 3Rs and conditioned to believe that turning off unused lights makes all the difference. People take issue when someone drinks from a plastic bottle or travels too much in cars or doesn’t bring an eco-bag.

While we recognize that personal responsibility is an important step in addressing the climate crisis, to berate ourselves and others for not doing enough to solve the problem, is a distraction from the fundamental culprit of CC.

To recap, the main driver behind climate change is greenhouse gases. Gases released from burning coal, oil, and gas trap the sun’s heat and hinder it from leaking back to space. So it’s unsurprising that 71% of global emissions are caused by companies from the energy sector and the fossil fuel industry. For this reason, climate actions are usually centered on saving electricity, reducing plastic consumption, and opting to carpool because these activities are energy-intensive.

Top Twenty investor-owned and state-owned oil, gas, and coal companies 1965-2017

The problem with the fixation on personal responsibility is that it shifts blame away from these companies who bear the carbon sin and places it on the individual. They blame our overconsumption and wastefulness. As such, the extraction of resources is justified because it is a response to our demands.  There’s been a history of fossil fuel companies finding deflection campaigns that are “aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals”.

But in reality, no matter how drastic your change in lifestyle is— for example, a reduction in the use of plastic, nothing would change without the implementation of a comprehensive plastic ban or mainstreaming alternatives to plastics.

Government leaders also point to the people, citing the ‘lack of discipline’ in relation to waste disposal and segregation. Anti-littering policies penalize up to Php 2,000 for littering. But such laws are still unfair and ineffective when waste receptacles aren’t made available to us.

To go green is a choice but we have to consider who has the capacity to make that choice. There’s an income difference between people who can buy in bulk vs people buying in sachets. There’s a difference between choosing to grow your own produce in the garden vs having no other source of food or livelihood. There’s even a disability factor to consider when it comes to the usage of plastic straws. People with disabilities and special needs rely on straws to consume food and beverages.

We don’t need to crucify carnivores, we have to make meat climate-friendly. We don’t need to save up for electrical cars, we need public transportation powered by clean energy. 

It is for these reasons that systemic change is necessary for addressing the fundamental problems of climate change. When we say systemic, it means that it can’t just rely on individuals. When climate action is written off as individual choice, it benefits a destructive structure. Systemic means that sectors cannot just work inside their own circles. The academe can’t just share findings among themselves, start-ups can’t just innovate on their own and the government can’t just write policies and impose penalties on petty violators. Systemic change requires coalition-building because climate justice is also tied to social justice, racial justice, justice for indigenous people, persons with disabilities, etc. Each environmental initiative cannot exist in a vacuum because its effects are felt across different sectors hence, the necessity of cross-sector partnerships aligned under a common agenda and strategy. 

Myths behind Sustainability

With the increasing momentum behind the environmental movement and the need for system-wide change, new models of development arise. We encounter words such as sustainable and green growth. It’s a movement that governments and industries don’t ignore, it’s something they preach and pledge to. 

This is why we see clothing brands like H&M advocate for garment recycling and oil industries such as Shell release sustainability reports. Last year, San Miguel Corporation, one of the country’s top polluters, started a mangrove plantation project that was criticized for planting the wrong species. 

Clothing Recycle at H&M

But when we look into these ‘green initiatives,’ it once again diverts attention away from the destruction caused by these industries. Rather than demanding accountability for climate change, they focus on sustainability. It is centered on opportunity rather than crisis. Investors and companies have taken advantage of the climate crisis to innovate new products and technologies branded as sustainable or energy-efficient. While innovation is vital, these initiatives have allowed the same companies who have destroyed the Earth to stay in power. It enables them to be relevant without radical transformation—attracting so-called “green jobs” that could uplift people from poverty and help the environment simultaneously.

This eco narrative is popular in the development trajectory of the Philippines. Branded as the first “smart, green and disaster-resilient city”, the New Clark City (NCC) has sparked controversy when it was revealed that more than 500 Ayta families would be displaced for the said project. A biodiversity assessment reported that  New Clark City will likely result in “reduced quality of habitat, species population, and net primary productivity.”

The proposed construction of the Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) aims to connect the City of Manila and Rizal province through an elevated highway passing through the Pasig River. In contrast to the envisioned green architecture adopted by PAREX, road systems itself exacerbate pollution and public health. Various organizations explained that dredging works along the Pasig River would “agitate embedded hazardous substances… and worsen soil erosion.”

Sustainability at its Core

When the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015, it was rooted in the concept that sustainability meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is not framed as a business opportunity, it is a paradigm for the pursuit of quality of life. It’s not just about providing for everyone, it is ensuring that everyone has the capacity to provide for themselves. They are self-sufficient, not dependent on ayuda or outreach programs. Its four dimensions–society, environment, culture, and economy are intertwined hence, the necessity of coalition-building. And while different actors must be involved in the pursuit of sustainable development, it’s the communities and the most vulnerable sectors that need to be at the center of the process. They cannot be reduced to beneficiaries or subjects for research, they must lead and shape the path of improved well-being and self-sufficiency.

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