Philippines: Going the wrong way on climate change
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Philippines: Going the wrong way on climate change

Since coming to power in June, firebrand Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has been making international headlines for a state-sanctioned murder campaign targeting anyone suspected of using or dealing drugs.

As many as 1,800 suspected addicts and dealers have been killed since Duterte won the election, and at least some have been innocent bystanders caught up in the bloodbath. As the violence continues to unfold, United Nations human rights experts, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime have all spoken out about the illegality of Duterte’s actions.

In his typical, measured fashion, the new president lashed out at the experts, calling them “stupid” and implying the Philippines might leave the UN altogether.

While his indiscriminate war on drugs is attracting condemnation from all sides, some of Duterte’s other decisions show an equally deep contempt for the international community. Statements regarding his government’s energy policy are increasingly becoming a matter of concern, especially given the great strides the Philippines has otherwise made in recent years to reduce its carbon footprint and transition to a green economy.

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Approving of the previous government’s plan to open 25 new coal-fired power plants, Duterte has gone even further than his predecessor’s government by vowing to renege on the carbon reduction targets agreed to by the outgoing president, Benigno Aquino III, as part of the Paris Climate change agreement reached last December.

Launching a blistering attack on “hypocritical” developed countries for demanding poorer countries forgo the use of fossil fuels, Duterte claims the Philippines needs to develop its economy, arguing that the developed world should shoulder the burden of carbon reduction. According to him, the Philippines—which produces less than 1 percent of global emissions—has not yet industrialised.

Duterte’s passion for coal comes across as all the more bizarre because the Philippines, an archipelago of low-lying islands, is one of the most vulnerable nations on Earth when it comes to rising sea waters and increasingly powerful typhoons.

Storms of increasing violence like Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 6,200 people and clocked up record breaking wind speeds in 2013, put the Philippines solidly on the front lines when it comes to the fight against climate change. Some of the survivors of Haiyan are even bringing oil companies like Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil to court, charging them with liability for the climate change-induced fury of the storm that destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones.


The Philippine flag stands amid devasted region brought about by typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest Philippine typhoon recorded in modern history, killing at least 6,300 people. (Photo: AP)

None of this, of course, bodes well for the Philippines’ participation in this year’s successor to the COP21 in Paris, due to be held in Marrakech in November. The aim of COP 22 is to “make the voices of the most vulnerable countries to climate change heard, in particular African countries and island states.” In other words, the COP22 is precisely the type of forum the Philippines, whose 2,000 inhabited islands are among the most imperiled by the effects of climate change, needs to place a major role in. In another sign of the changing times, the Astana EXPO-2017 due to be held in Kazakhstan next year is focused on promoting energy efficiency.

That one of the world’s most prominent oil exporters is using an opportunity to focus on green and renewable energies is telling. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which represents the Philippines, has already lent its support to creating a new UN-backed international center based on EXPO-2017’s work, showing how far outside the mainstream Duterte finds himself when it comes to global energy.

Nor can the Filipino leader hide behind the country’s developing status to avoid climate change questions; one of his counterparts in ASEAN, Indonesian president Joko Widodo, found out that massive wildfires sparked in emissions crisis and undercut his efforts to raise his country’s international profile. Fueled by environmental degradation, the wildfires instead propelled Indonesia to the top of global emissions charts and shone a harsh global spotlight directly on its palm oil and timber industries.

Strangely, Duterte’s position on energy also comes at the same time the Philippines is emerging as a renewables leader. After passing the Renewable Energy Act in 2008, the country has gone from total dependence on fossil fuels to meeting over a third of its energy needs from renewables—in all, 1100 megawatts of wind and solar power have been added to the national energy mix.

According to Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, who authored the 2008 Act, three million jobs created in construction and engineering can be linked back to the legislation. Among other provisions, his measure instituted an income tax holiday for the first seven years of commercial operations, a corporate tax rate of 10 percent for the following 25 years, and zero value added tax (VAT) for renewable energy companies.

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One of the most prominent projects to take root in this friendly regulatory climate is the Cadiz City solar farm, which opened earlier this year and ranks as the largest solar power plant in Southeast Asia.

Even within the government, the president’s coal-friendly stance has its opponents. The head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, anti-mining activist Gina Lopez, has played a leading role in civic campaigns against coal-fired plants. Lopez is a supporter of groups like Piglas Pilipinas, which mobilizes Filipino civil society actors to protest against the construction of coal power plants.

In Batangas in May, for example, 10,000 people turned out to oppose the construction of a 600-megawatt plant. Besides taking to the streets, this highly motivated grassroots movement has been waging a sustained media campaign to counter the arguments made by coal advocates. These groups are throwing their weight behind the work of the recently-formed Climate Change Commission, which Duterte (as the president) is chair of. How an avowedly pro-coal politician can be taken seriously on climate change issues remains an open question.

In the long run, a country as exposed to climate change as the Philippines can’t seriously look to coal as a solution for its energy needs.

Unfortunately, Duterte’s ruthless campaign to exterminate drug use (and users) and flat-out rejection of international pressure show that he may be willing to buck the global climate change consensus as well.