Will Duterte flip-flop again on climate pact? (Let’s hope so)

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

LAST Friday, the supposedly groundbreaking Paris Climate Agreement forged in December last year took a step closer to reality when the threshold for implementation – ratification by at least 55 countries collectively responsible for at least 55 percent of the world’s emissions – was passed. As of Friday, 97 of the 197 signatories, together accounting for 67.5 percent of emissions, had ratified the pact, meaning it now comes into force, although it will take further discussions (which begin in Morocco this week) to determine how to enforce it.

The Philippines is not one of the countries to have ratified the pact. In mid-July, just about two weeks after taking office, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the pact “stupid” and “absurd” and said he would not honor it, complaining that the Philippines’ commitment to reduce its emissions by 70 percent by 2030 was ridiculous. The world’s biggest polluters ought not to impose limitations on still-developing countries like the Philippines, he said, and should bear the biggest burden of cleaning up the climate mess.

That was actually a fairly reasonable assessment, which more people would have probably taken seriously if not a month later, reportedly after a discussion with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Duterte had changed his tune, and declared he was open to accepting the pact “as long as it is fair to our economic situation.” For now, that seems to be the position he is sticking with, as he has detailed Environment Secretary Gina Lopez to attend the next round of international climate talks in Marrakesh.

Duterte is known to have an appreciation for environmental issues, so his initial disagreement with the Paris Agreement was not based on specious reasons. The 70 percent emissions reduction pledge, which former President BS Aquino 3rd unilaterally made on his own, unsupported by any scientific fact apart from his overweening desire to attract attention to himself, was in fact utterly ridiculous; the most any other country promised was in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 percent. In order to achieve the target, virtually all economic activity would have to stop; in terms of the Philippines’ impact on the world’s climate, as it stands now the country only contributes about 0.3 percent of global emissions, meaning its sacrifice would be virtually meaningless.

Duterte’s fear was that the imposition of emissions limits, at least those as severe as the country would commit to under the Paris Agreement, would hamstring his goal to boost the country’s industrial development, and he was right. What form that development will take is still unclear—his idea to create a steel industry is probably a non-starter, but there are other potential growth areas—but where strict emissions controls would present a probably insurmountable challenge is in meeting the country’s energy demand. At least in the medium term (perhaps the next 15 to 20 years), the Philippines will have to rely primarily on conventional sources of power such as coal and gas until renewable energy develops further; it is moving in a positive direction, and with encouraging speed, but it won’t get there fast enough to meet the country’s needs in the next few years.

Like it or not, that is going to create emissions, even if the country selects the cleanest available technology.
Under those circumstances, pledging to keep emissions from increasing or even pledging a smaller, more manageable degree of reduction (such as by focusing on reducing the country’s overpopulation of excessively polluting vehicles) would have made sense. Of course, “sense” and “BS Aquino 3rd” were not usually found in the same sentence during his six years in office, and thus he has left his successor and the country with a considerable dilemma.

The problem is this: Having been ratified by the necessary number of signatories, the Paris Agreement is now in force. The discussions this week and after will now focus on implementation, not the terms of the agreement itself, which makes it an all-or-nothing proposition for the Philippines—either it honors its 70 percent commitment, or it does not. If it does, it likely consigns itself to retarding its own development; if it does not, it likely disqualifies itself from whatever assistance and cooperation the rest of the world devises—assuming that actually happens, which is by no means certain at this point—to help the developing world.

Neither outcome is particularly attractive, but the latter probably does the least harm. Malacañang’s instruction to Lopez ought to be to tell the rest of the gathering in Marrakesh to take their agreement and stuff it. The other side of that coin, of course, is that the Philippines will need to develop its own substantial climate change mitigation plan, but if the country can clearly demonstrate that is exactly what it intends to do, it could become a hotspot for renewable energy and climate mitigation investment, while the rest of the world wrangles over the details of implementing the Paris accord.



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