Q and A: What’s at stake for PH in climate summit

NEW YORK, United States – President Benigno Aquino III is attending the United Nations Climate Summit here in New York on Tuesday, September 23, to highlight the risks that vulnerable countries like the Philippines face from climate change. 

Just days before the summit, the Philippines suffers from heavy rain and floods from Tropical Storm Mario (Fung-Wong). (READ: 5 things Aquino should say in his UN Climate Summit speech)

With 120 heads of state speaking, Aquino and his counterparts are only given all of 4 minutes each to address the summit. For a more in-depth look at what’s at stake for the Philippines in this climate summit, Rappler talks to one of the most passionate voices in the global climate negotiations. 

Philippine Climate Change Commissioner Naderev “Yeb” Saño famously appealed for action to end what he called the climate change madness last year in the Warsaw negotiations.  

This time, he tells Rappler he remains optimistic that change will come not just from the high-level event here at the UN but also from the grassroots. 

What do you expect from this summit? 

First, I’d like to say that I don’t have the illusion that a single conference or a single gathering will actually change the game with respect to what we need to do to avert the climate crisis. The summit nonetheless comes at a very crucial moment. It is quite comfortably distant from the 2015 deadline, which will be in Paris at the end of 2015 but it also comes near enough to establish that momentum towards Paris.  

We all know that the legitimate venue for the climate negotiations is under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which will culminate in 2015 for a new agreement, and that new agreement will capture everything that needs to enhance ambition and urgent action so we stay within the safe limits with respect to the adverse impacts of climate change, and the world has already decided that that threshold is a 2 degrees Celsius threshold. 

The agreement must be within the context of meeting the 2 degrees target. I’d say the New York summit being called by Ban Ki-Moon on September 23 must also be coherent and consistent with meeting the 2 degrees target. 

We’d like to be optimistic about this summit but the political reality tells us that with a few weeks before the summit, we haven’t really seen any major indications that the biggest polluters on earth would be willing to put down on the table specific, ambitious, concrete targets that can change the game.  

Aren’t they announcing major commitments at the summit? 

What we’re hearing in the news is sort of the opposite of positive indications. What we’re hearing from the news from the biggest emitters, those who have historical responsibility is that the 2015 agreement will not meet the 2 degrees target. This is what has been said and this is really worrying, especially from the perspective of the Philippines being one of if not the most vulnerable country to climate change. Failing to meet the 2 degrees target and failing even to come up even with a robust agreement by next year, for me, is really condemning countries like the Philippines to a very dreadful future. 

Why do you say President Obama is the elephant in the room? 

We of course try to solve the climate change problem within the purview of the multilateral system where you have all countries around the world trying to solve it. In fact, the climate convention is the most universal treaty with 195 parties today but the climate convention gave birth to another legally binding treaty, which was the Kyoto Protocol. 

The US is the elephant in the room because it did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, even if it represents more than 25% of the global warming pollution. Now for us to avert the crisis, to once and for all be able to confront climate change head on, we need the United States onboard and we need an agreement that takes everyone into account because we cannot solve climate change if we do not have all countries on board. 

What should the Philippines highlight in the summit? 

What we need to highlight from the Philippine experience is the moral voice we’ll bring into this whole debate. The Philippines being at the receiving end of the climate change crisis, experiencing all of its impacts and having to confront the devastating effects of climate change, we walk into that room and we bring that moral voice and I think that’s what the Secretary-General wants the world to see. The Philippines has been leading in international negotiations in bringing that moral voice into this discussion. 

With respect to what we need to see, science is very clear and the scientific imperative tells us that we need to drastically transform the global economy so that we meet, prevent dangerous climate change from proceeding. That has been translated into specific figures. For instance, we need to reduce more than 40% below the 1990 levels by the year 2020, which is just 6 years away.  

We need zero net emissions by the year 2050 meaning we should have phased out the sources of carbon dioxide, pollution, by the year 2050 or at least we have enough forests to absorb, sequester.  

Will the Philippines also announce new commitments?  

The important point that the Philippines must raise with respect to its commitments is what it is already seriously doing. For instance, we have a National Renewable Energy program, which aims to triple the renewable energy capacity but we also need to highlight the challenges we face in making that happen. Much of that will be done even without help from outside so the Philippines must take pride in being one of the leaders in renewable energy in the world.  

Can you elaborate on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility in the Climate Change Convention?  

The principle of common but differentiated responsibility, while it is at the heart of many international agreements, remains a very poorly understood concept, especially as it relates to climate change. We will never be able to solve climate change if those who were responsible for the problem do not acknowledge that responsibility and that’s what we are seeing. When we talk about common but differentiated responsibility, that means there is a common responsibility.  

In plain English, all of us, every individual, every country in this planet has a responsibility but it is differentiated because those who were largely responsible for the problem must have larger responsibility and that’s where differentiation comes in. We also all know that it is quite obvious that there are countries that have contributed more to this problem than others and as such, the notion of that responsibility must be differentiated according to the sons that is proportionate to what each country has done to exacerbate this problem. 

What is the biggest obstacle to the negotiations? 

I go back to the notion that climate change is not a simple problem. It’s a complex problem that was brought about by the kind of economic pursuit that the whole world tries to do. In order for us to avert this crisis, it’s really about reindustrializing the whole world in the same scale as the first industrial revolution. That’s easier said than done. That’s why this is complex and you hear many excuses.  

However, my optimism lies in the fact that I believe in humanity’s ability to save itself and to rise above adversity and so I truly believe that the community of nations can find a solution to this. Why? Because the alternative is not even an alternative. It is the demise of human civilization. It is the demise of biodiversity. It is a dreadful future, especially for the poorest countries of the world and those who struggle even with basic issues such as poverty and food. 

What is the Philippine position going into the Lima talks in Peru this December? 

The Lima conference at the end of this year will be about formulating or trying our best to come up with a draft text of the agreement for 2015. When we say drafting, this means writing text, looking at legal language and also trying to sort out what kind of legal instrument are we talking about. These things remain unresolved until now, a few months before Lima.  

What we need to see by Lima is a draft, a concrete document that has words in it that would probably have brackets pertaining to sentences or phrases that are not yet agreed and that is what we negotiate on. And we do not negotiate on concepts as we are doing right now. We need to negotiate on words and language that will go into the agreement. Because after all, the 2015 agreement will be a written international agreement. And so before we get to that, we need to start writing the agreement and the whole world must agree to all the words. That’s what we need to see in Paris. 

From the perspective of the Philippines, we need to see an agreement that is ambitious, which again meets the 2 degrees Celsius targets. We need to see a draft that incorporates equity and common but differentiated responsibility to ensure that those who are largely responsible for this problem do not escape from that responsibility. 

We need an agreement or a draft from Lima that shows that transformation of the world economy is at the core of this agreement, which means that we need to see in that agreement a very robust aspect of climate finance, of how resources will be mobilized in order to avert this crisis. We’re imagining that the whole world is fighting this war and if we fight a war, we need to mobilize every resource we have. We have to do pep talks for every country, and motivate every person on earth to be part of this endeavor to save the planet and in fact, to save humanity. 

What are we lobbying for in the area of climate finance? 

We want to phase out the use of fossil fuels but it will be easier for us, in fact, important for us to have the support for us to be able to take that leapfrog. Because if we follow the conventional way of development, it will be dirty as many countries have done. The intention of us is to leapfrog over the dirty approach so we can pursue keener development but we need resources for that.  

But the struggle now for the Philippines is even as we try to do clean development, we’re already grappling with the negative impacts of climate change. In fact, it’s erasing the kind of development that we have worked so hard for for many decades. We also need support for that because that is a way for us to pursue adaptation.  

How much money is there? Isn’t the Green Climate Fund supposed to be operationalized this month? 

The problem with the levels of finance available for countries that need it to pursue cleaner development and adapt to climate change, it’s just not enough. The scale is staggering. Many of the estimates say it cannot be below $100 billion per year for all countries that need the finance. And much of what we see right now is a wait and see game, a waiting game for those who have the resources to be able to provide us with that. 

Analysts say it’s possible that the final treaty will just stitch together the voluntary commitments of countries. Is that likely?  

It’s very easy to lend credence to that analysis that what we will see in 2015 as the final agreement is an agreement that’s bottom-up, meaning just consolidating all of it. In the Philippines, we call it the potluck system where you just pledge to bring a certain kind of food and if you bring it, everyone will be happy with you. I don’t think that is enough to avert the climate crisis. 

If the scientific imperative or even the moral imperative is to prevent global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, it cannot be a bottom-up approach because the bottom-up approach right now, points to a 4 degrees warmer world. And for the Philippines, that cannot be acceptable in the context of national interest and the context of intergenerational responsibility. It’s just unimaginable for the Philippines to accept 4 degrees warmer world. 

How did Super Typhoon Haiyan change the way the world understands climate change? What changed in the Philippines nearly a year later

From the global perspective, many people now understand that climate change affects real people, real lives, real livelihoods. It has become clearer for many people around the world and I think it has galvanized global public opinion on climate change when we can link disasters very clearly to the global problem of climate change. Super Typhoon Haiyan, being the strongest storm ever to make landfall in modern history, has made it very easy for us to link these catastrophes, human suffering especially with climate change. That has opened the eyes of many people around the world.

As to what the Philippines has already started to realize and recognize in the face of stronger challenges, stronger typhoons, more intense typhoons that will surely be coming because of a warmer world, the Philippines has put in place the necessary policies for that and allowed sectors to formulate their respective adaptation strategies.

We also harness the global solidarity and harness the synergy across sectors in Philippine society to heighten awareness on climate change. The Climate Change Commission is able to look at how money is spent in the national budget whether it responds to climate change or whether it increases the risk. We’ve started that process and I think that’s very important for us. 

We also see massive interest and mindfulness at the local government level to formulate their own plans, strategies, being able to look at the problem in a more holistic way. 

One criticism of the Philippines is our use of coal-fired power plants. How do you address that?  

I would say categorically that the burning of coal to produce power is the single biggest cost of climate change, globally. That’s why we need a concerted effort to phase out the use of fossil fuels. Otherwise, we’re lacking in our energy infrastructure for a long time that will prevent us from solving the global climate problem. And that behooves the Philippines as well to pursue cleaner development by developing more cleaner sources of energy. That’s what we say about expanding our options and the opportunities for us to do that. 

We’re working on the concept of socialized feed-in tariffs because we now have feed-in tariffs for renewable energy but one of the biggest issues in our country is the cost of electricity. We cannot talk about even a 1-centavo increase per kilowatt hour in this country. It’s just unacceptable. What we need to get the international community to support is that incremental cost for expanding our renewable energy resources and utilization. For example, we have that feed-in tariff that is generally higher than the electricity price so the increment of that can be submitted to the international community for support and that’s our climate finance.  

Climate finance can address the higher cost, at least the higher upfront cost for renewable energy in the Philippines and we are working with many sectors to develop that idea, and if we are fortunate, we can see a lot of interest from rich countries to make that happen in the Philippines for us to avoid having to build all of those coal-fired power plants. 

You’ve been called the “unlikely climate justice star.” Why has climate change become so personal for you?  

For me, the motivation is quite simple. Climate change has become a very serious threat to humanity, in fact a very serious threat even to our generation. It is our duty to hand down a planet to our children that thrives, that is good for them. For me it’s quite simple, I’d like to be able to wake up and look at my children in the eye and say I’ve done my best to give you a better world. – Rappler.com 

Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.