Philippines' Ratification of Paris Agreement Cheers Climate World

With its populist leader, Rodrigo Duterte, making a U-turn on the international climate accord, one of the world's most vulnerable countries keeps leading role.

Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands in the Philippines in 2013

After Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the Philippines in November 2013, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, the country became a leading moral voice for action in the United Nations climate talks. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When the Philippines' senate unanimously approved the government's ratification of the Paris climate agreement last week, climate activists breathed a sigh of relief.

The vote ended months of uncertainty over whether the Philippines' new populist leader, Rodrigo Duterte, would exit the accord. The country, among the nations most vulnerable to climate change impacts, has played a pivotal role as a moral voice in the international climate negotiations. It also served as a bridge-builder between wealthy and poor nations in the run up to the Paris accord.

"The ratification is quite a relief for us," said Yeb Saño, former head of the Philippines delegation to the United Nations. "For a country that has been so active on this issue, for a country that has been so passionate about climate change, to walk away from the Paris agreement would have been really, really sad and would have sent a really bad signal across the world."

During the climate talks leading up to the Paris agreement in 2015, the Philippines was the chair of a group of developing nations called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which helped champion the call for nations to commit to the long-term goal of keeping future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Philippines pushed this target, helping create what became known as the high ambition coalition, a group of more than 100 developed and developing countries, including small island nations, the United States and China, that was seen as a diplomatic feat, instrumental in strengthening the Paris text. The target was ultimately included in the final accord.

"The role of the Philippines was basically to be an honest broker" between developed and developing nations, said Saño, who became executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia before the Paris agreement was struck. "I think its vulnerability to climate change has allowed it to amplify the voices of many other communities and countries that are vulnerable to climate change."

The Philippines, an impoverished archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is a frequent target of typhoons generated in the western Pacific Ocean, including some of the world's most powerful storms. More than a dozen major storms have slammed into the chain of islands in the last five years, bringing flooding and strong winds that have killed thousands of people, displaced millions more and cost millions in infrastructure and crop damage. The island's worst storm hit in November 2013. Called Typhoon Haiyan, it caused more than 6,000 deaths and flattened cities in its wake. Parts of the Philippines are still recovering from that event.

During the climate talks in Warsaw, days after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the archipelago, Saño delivered a tearful plea to his fellow negotiators urging climate action and vowing not to eat. He said: "In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate, this means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this COP, until a meaningful outcome is in sight. ... What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness."  

Saño fasted for nearly two weeks. He succeeded in bringing attention to the moral issue of "historical responsibility"—that the industrialized nations most responsible for global warming bear the greatest burden for cutting carbon pollution and helping poorer nations adapt.

When the Paris accord was struck in December 2015, Benigno Aquino III, then president of the Philippines, signed it. Duterte, however, won a landslide election in May 2016. One of his first acts in office was calling the agreement "stupid" and saying that he would not "honor" it.  Though Duterte is a believer in climate change, he said the accord would hamper the growth of the Philippines' economy.

It was a puzzling claim for climate experts. The Philippines is not a major greenhouse gas polluter and meeting its commitment to reducing emissions 70 percent compared to business-as-usual levels by 2030 is seen as achievable. It would involve slowing tropical deforestation and switching to renewable energy. While the nation relies mostly on coal and natural gas for electricity, it has a wealth of wind and geothermal resources. Under the accord the nation would receive needed financial resources to help make this transition and steel itself against its extreme weather.

"There's nothing to lose in engaging in this agreement," said Yamide Dagnet, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute.

Local politicians met with Duterte to share their support for the agreement and activists issued public statements urging him to reconsider. While he was secretary of state, John Kerry also reportedly spoke to him about staying in the deal and its benefits for the country's economy. Duterte changed his mind, signing a document signaling the country's ratification of the accord in late February. The Senate's passage of the resolution made it official. The total number of ratified countries is now 136 out of 197 members to the climate convention.

"This will go down in history as one of our shining achievements," Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Philippines Senate's climate committee, said in a statement.

"It's a story where good sense prevails," Dagnet said.

The conclusion to the Philippines' climate saga comes as one is beginning in the United States. Former President Barack Obama made climate a priority and ratified the Paris agreement during his final months in office. Donald Trump has not yet moved to withdraw America from the accord as he promised in his campaign, but his budget proposal signaled no support for climate programs and called for the elimination of funding for most domestic and foreign work.

That includes ending U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations including the Philippines prepare and respond to climate change. The U.S. has pledged $3 billion to the fund and only $1 billion has been paid out. The remaining $2 billion represents about 20 percent of the $10.3 billion raised so far for the fund.

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