President Duterte and the Paris Agreement

I am not upset with President Duterte's comments last week, which media has interpreted as a rejection of the Paris Agreement. Frankly, he made important and good points-in particular, that developed countries must take the lead in addressing climate change and should not pass on this obligation to developing countries.

President Duterte just reiterated a pillar of climate justice, which our country has advocated since the climate negotiations began in 1990 and did again up to the Paris conference last December 2015. President Aquino himself spoke about this in Paris and in New York in 2014. President Arroyo included this in her speech in Copenhagen in 2009 and President Fidel V. Ramos made sure he instructed Secretary Victor Ramos to advocate this in Kyoto, Japan in 1997. I was the chief negotiator of the Philippines then and made sure our delegation would take the lead in pushing the point.

Secretaries Manny de Guzman, Lucille Sering, and Heherson Alvarez, who have alternatively been Vice-Chairs of the Climate Change Commission since 2009, have repeated this demand in all recent climate change summits. Our negotiators have done the same in technical and other meetings. It is certainly a staple of all the books and articles I have written or statements I have drafted or delivered myself for the Philippines in 25 years of being engaged in climate diplomacy.

The ambassador that President Duterte cited in his speech either misinformed him about the Paris Agreement. This, or he was misunderstood. That ambassador certainly mischaracterized the agreement as a carbon reduction agreement when it is much more than that. In fact, it is a sustainable development accord where adaptation, support and loss-and-damage provisions are just as important.

Every country, under the Paris Agreement, is allowed to offer its own program-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC)-based on its strategic and long-term interests. We should only make commitments that redound to our benefit. We should certainly not do things that restrict our ability to develop our economy, including to industrialize.

The Paris Agreement is the most differentiated climate and environmental agreement. It allows countries to join based on their own interests. The differentiation in the agreement is flawed because it means developed countries and big developing countries like China and India cannot be pressured to do more about reducing their emissions. This kind of differentiation is good for countries like the Philippines so we can choose our own path to low-emission development.

The previous administration decided to offer an ambitious NDC but it made it contingent on support by developed countries. That was a strategic decision and it was done with care. It's a no-harm commitment because we said we are bound only to the target to the extent that developed countries provided finance and technology for us to achieve it. We have already been spending money on climate change and will continue to do that. If we need to do more, it must come from our partners.

The 70-percent emission reduction we committed to is a reduction from business as usual (BAU) emissions by 2030, meaning from the increase we would have had if we didn't do anything. If we did nothing, our emissions would double or even triple. What we have offered is to reduce what that doubled or tripled amount would be by 70 percent. And as I said, we also made our commitment contingent on support-finance and technology-provided by developed countries and if no money or technology were forthcoming, we cannot be held to account for that target. So there is little risk for us and a lot to gain. And the time frame allows us to plan properly.

In the climate negotiations, we have been pushing all countries to reduce emissions. This is especially so for developed countries which are historically responsible for the early emissions and majority of current emissions and big developing countries who are increasing their contribution (China is now the number-one country in terms of annual contributions). We belong to neither group-as a middle-income country, we are in the group of countries that contribute less than one percent each of the total emissions (we contribute 0.34 percent, similar to the Czech Republic's contribution). Majority of countries actually emit even less than us-small island states, least developed countries, etc.-with many of them already having zero net emissions or contributing less than .01 percent. Thirty-four countries emit more and160 countries emit less than what we do.

Added together, those of us who are in the one-percent-or-less emissions group still would total a fifth or a sixth of total global emissions. This is why even the small emitters also have to reduce emissions. If they don't, the problem won't be solved. For a country that suffers climate change, that is not acceptable. And a country that suffers climate change should also not contribute to the problem, even if very little. That's like suicide -contributing to your own destruction. This explains why many vulnerable countries offered ambitious NDCs.

As to the reduction goal preventing us from being industrialized, it should not. From a practical point of view, it simply means we need to transform our energy system to rely more on renewables rather than on coal. There are many other reasons we should do that-economic, environmental, health-other than climate reasons. It also means we also have to take care of our forests and land better so that it does not emit carbon. Other sectors can also help-waste, transportation and industry, and eventually agriculture.

All these are consistent with our sustainable development; all the measures we should take must be no-regrets and good for us.

The Paris Agreement can actually give us the means to do all of these and more. If we were smart, we would use the agreement to transition to a clean energy system, protect our forests and improve land use, make our cities more sustainable, and support environmentally friendly industrialization.

The Paris Agreement has a life of its own, regardless of what we do. We can certainly decide to isolate ourselves and be the only country in the world that does not ratify the Paris Agreement. If we decide to do that, we must be ready to address climate change on our own with our resources and with no one to help us. Among others, we will not be able to take advantage of the Loss-and-Damage mechanism that the Paris Agreement establishes.

The Paris Agreement is imperfect. It is certainly flawed from a climate justice point of view. While we succeeded in integrating human rights and ecosystems integrity into the agreement, the language could have been stronger. Its support provisions on finance, technology transfer, and capacity building could have been more legally binding.

But imperfect as it is, the Paris Agreement is the only one possible at this time if we want global cooperation. Thankfully, it is not the least common denominator agreement but the optimum possible with an opening for improving it in the years to come. For sure, it is the only multilateral game in town for the next 10 years.

Climate change is real and will continue to grow in intensity regardless of us. That's why principled engagement with the government and continuous cooperation with the international community is the only option.

Source: The Standard