Guest comment: CDM landfill project under review undermines Philippine solid waste law (Newsletter #9)

Landfills have become more controversial in the Philippines ever since a “trash-slide” buried and killed over 200 waste-pickers in a mountain of garbage at an open dump in Manila in July 2000. Since then, after long years of campaigning, environmentalists and sustainability campaigners have succeeded in passing a landmark Solid Waste Management law.

This law mandates the closure of existing open dumps and controlled landfills and requires the national government and local government units to enforce recycling, composting, and segregation at the village level. With a view to gradually phasing out the practice of landfilling in the country, the law allows for the transitional operation of sanitary landfills—but only if they comply with stringent sanitary and environmental requirements. Otherwise, they will not be allowed to operate.

Among these requirements is the installation of “gas control and recovery systems” for capturing gas emitted when organic wastes are not segregated from other kinds of waste and stored and compacted in landfills.

And yet, the Metro Clark Landfill Gas Capture project (Project 2524) —one of the projects to be reviewed by the CDM board this July[1]— Is claiming CERs for simply installing this required gas control and recovery system. In other words, it wants carbon credits for simply meeting the minimum requirements for it to function under the law. The project is therefore not additional because it already has to install the gas control and recovery system anyway for it to be allowed to legally operate. Without this gas control and recovery system, the landfill would be illegal under Philippine laws.

In its project design document, Metro Clark’s developer argues that the Solid Waste Management law should be ignored in setting the baseline since it is not being enforced anyway. Indeed, to the dismay of its advocates, the law has so far not been effectively enforced primarily because the national government has failed to provide the necessary funding to make the agencies tasked to implement it work. Moreover, the law has run into stiff opposition from local government officials and companies that earn revenues from the lucrative waste disposal industry (from garbage collection fees to landfill rental).

The project developers, however, fail to provide supporting argument to back their assumption that this non-enforcement will remain unchanged. There are many factors that cast doubt on this assumption: First, after nine years under an embattled and weak administration, a new, relatively more reform-oriented government has just been elected—one that may finally allocate required resources for the law’s enforcement. A no-nonsense interior minister, noted for his untainted record and managerial skills has just been appointed, thereby making increased national government control over recalcitrant local government units more likely. Second, sustainable solid waste management advocates are succeeding in their efforts to promote recycling, composting and segregation at the grassroots level, thereby expanding the civil society constituency supporting the law’s implementation. Whether or not these factors will combine successfully to result in the effective enforcement of the law cannot just be dismissed outright by the project developers nor the CDM board.

If enforced, the law may lead to greater emissions reductions than could ever be achieved by landfill projects receiving CERs because—in requiring recycling, composting, and segregation—the result may be less demand for manufactured products (and thus for raw materials) and less methane emissions since segregated and composted organic trash not compacted and stored in landfills does not generate methane.

Ironically, if the Clark project is approved, the CDM itself may be responsible for setting back the enforcement of the law. As it is, two other similar landfill gas projects in the Philippines have been approved. To date, they remain the largest and second largest CDM projects in the country in terms of claimed reductions: the Montalban landfill project and the Quezon City landfill project. All these projects demand great volumes of organic trash to be thrown and compacted in landfills in order to be viable. This requirement can only be met, however if garbage were not recycled, if organic trash were not segregated from nonorganic trash and composted—in other words, if the law remains unenforced.

With the very government agencies and local units that are mandated to enforce the law receiving a share in the proceeds of the landfill rental and the landfill gas projects, the CDM—by approving more projects like Metro Clark—may end up expanding the perverse incentives that prevent the law from achieving its objectives.

A new report detailing problems with CDM projects in the Philippines has just been released by Focus on the Global South. The report claims that most of the CERs being generated will go to projects that further exacerbate climate change and compromise sustainable development, enriching large conglomerates that are expanding extractive and fossil fuel-intensive activities, in pursuit of objectives that could otherwise be achieved through more effective government regulation and community action. Rather than allowing governments and communities to embark on a just transition towards a more sustainable path, the report claims, the CDM is rewarding government ineptitude and supporting the very agents that contribute to climate change. A PDF copy of the report can be downloaded from: http://www.focusweb.org/books/cdmphilippinesreport

By Herbert Docena, Focus on the Global South