As President Rodrigo Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address (SONA) approaches, we take a look back at his administration’s stances, policies, and actions when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. Duterte’s term from July 2016 to present saw three of the costliest typhoons to ever hit the Philippines — Ompong in 2018, Ulysses and Rolly in 2020 — affecting millions of people and causing billions of pesos worth of damage. The impacts of the intense drought back in 2016 were also still fresh wounds at the time President Duterte was sworn in. How has the administration fared in addressing both current and anticipated climate impacts?
One of the very first things President Duterte announced, just days after his inauguration, was that he would not honor the United Nations Paris Agreement, saying that the deal would “stifle” Philippine industrialization and that the burden of emissions cuts should be placed on industrialized countries. He had previously called rich countries “hypocrites” for the same reason, specifically mentioning countries like China and the US. However, as we would see later on in his term, his strong stance against these two worst-polluting countries did not seem to affect the administration’s very close relationship with them.
The year 2016 also saw a rise in the extrajudicial killings of land and environment defenders, making the Philippines the worst country in Asia and third-worst in the world in terms of defender killings, according to the tally of Global Witness. Duterte’s first day in office was actually marked by the killing of Gloria Capitan, a staunch anti-coal activist. This trend of topping the Global Witness list would persist for the rest of Duterte’s term, landing second, first, and second on the global list in 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively.
2017 and 2018
Despite initially saying he would do otherwise, Duterte finally signed the Paris Agreement within the first few months of 2017. This process, however, took some discussion and was ultimately put to a Cabinet vote as Duterte himself was still unconvinced about the Agreement.
In the following year, the Philippine Climate Change Assessment Working Group 3 report was released, which said that greenhouse gas emissions of the country were on the rise. Though the Philippines still produced less than half of one percent of global emissions at the time, scientists commented that sectors like energy and transport were the main culprits behind rising local emissions and that changes were necessary in these sectors in the fight to mitigate climate change.
Towards the end of the first half of 2019, Duterte again let loose some tough banter, this time criticizing international climate conferences for accomplishing “nothing” and threatened the non-attendance of the Philippines in future climate conferences. Statements like these from the administration were countered by the Commission of Human Rights (CHR), citing the Philippines’ key role alongside other climate vulnerable nations in pushing for the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit included in the Paris Agreement.
2019 also saw a surge in global protests led by the youth and environmental groups, with millions mobilizing around the world within a single week of September that year. However, here in the Philippines, climate activists did not have it easy. Environmental organizations Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) and Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CEC) faced the threat of an office raid by state forces as they were preparing for one of the local actions in line with the Global Climate Strike. Kalikasan PNE and CEC were among YACAP’s partners in our September 2019 action in Quezon City.
Towards the end of 2019, the CHR presented findings of its inquiry on human rights impacts of climate change at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) 25 in Madrid, Spain, where it stated that carbon major companies (i.e. the worst-polluting companies) could be found liable on legal and moral grounds for human rights violations attributable to climate change.
Once again, this time in front of the UN General Assembly, Duterte postured as a progressive in international spaces, stating that climate change must be tackled as urgently as the COVID-19 pandemic. He gave a similar message in front of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), demanding “climate justice” from developed nations responsible for the climate crisis.
The string of typhoons that battered the Philippines towards the end of 2020 pushed members of the House of Representatives to adopt a resolution seeking to declare a climate emergency. Measures that were taken at this stage included the filing of bills seeking to establish a Department of Disaster Resilience as well as pushing for dedicated evacuation centers for communities. However, as of writing, there does not seem to be much progress in these initiatives.
2020 also marked the declaration by the Department of Energy of a moratorium on new coal-fired power plant projects, a move celebrated by many environment and climate activists. However, the devil is definitely in the details, as the moratorium did not cover previously-approved or indicative projects already in the pipeline.
2021 (so far)
After much ado, the Philippines finally submitted its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in compliance with the Paris Agreement. However, these NDCs, which state the projects and measures the government will undertake to mitigate its carbon emissions, have been criticized as woefully inadequate. For one, less than 3% of the submitted NDCs are unconditional, meaning a vast majority of the projects are dependent on external support. Additionally, some of the projects cited are already projects that the Duterte administration would do anyway, and problematic ones at that. These include the jeepney modernization project which places the burden of transition on jeepney drivers and operators, as well as some projects under the Build, Build, Build program (because for some reason, building more highways counts towards emissions reduction).
A recent development leading up to UNFCCC COP 26 in Glasgow is the call of several of the countries most affected by climate change — including the Philippines — for more financial support from the Global North for climate adaptation and mitigation. We will see in the coming months whether our government will play a vital role in this push for accountability from the North.
President Duterte’s strong words and posturing when it comes to climate, particularly in the international setting, rarely matched concrete actions on the ground. While his administration took some steps in the right direction when it comes to mitigation efforts — declaring a (partial) moratorium on new coal power plants, for example, and finally submitting the country’s (largely inadequate) Nationally Determined Contributions to the UN — proactive and community-centered adaptation measures are still sorely lacking. Our national response to climate change remains reactive; talk about the climate crisis only takes place right before, and right after, a devastating typhoon. The Philippines, one of the countries most affected by the climate crisis, still lacks a long-term and concrete climate adaptation plan.
Additionally, despite some tough talk against countries like China and the US, the current administration has shown that it is not up to the task of tackling these countries head-on for their historic and current contributions to the climate crisis and, consequently, the devastation the Philippines faces almost every year. Issues like the West Philippine Sea occupation by China have revealed where President Duterte’s allegiance truly lies. A leader who is serious about the climate crisis should be willing to confront countries like the US and China and demand for reparations.
No matter what happens in the future, the climate crisis as we know it is here to stay, and it will likely even get worse. The best time to pursue action towards genuine climate resilience is now — and therefore now is also the time to call for a change in leadership to one that will recognize the scale of the crisis, and truly fight for our present and future.