The unanimous ratification of the Paris agreement by the Senate last March 14 is an important milestone for the Philippines in its fight against climate change. This approval of the agreement, which entered into force last November, is a major political reversal from President Rodrigo Duterte’s refusal to honour it during his presidential campaign. The treaty’s aim to limit the global temperature increase at 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels has significant implications for one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.
“Our goal is to keep temperatures under 1.5 degree Celsius to enable our countries to reap early the benefits of economic security, job creation, and environmental safety,” said Secretary Manny de Guzman of the Philippine Climate Change Commission.
Natural vulnerability to climate-related disasters
The Philippines has been at the forefront of the global movement against climate change in the past decade. The onslaught of strong typhoons such as Ondoy (2009), Pablo (2012), and Yolanda (2013) across the country cemented climate change into the national consciousness. These occurrences were the primary catalysts of a drastic change to the nation’s disaster risk reduction and management plan.
More extreme weather events struck the Philippines last year that strengthened public sentiment towards national climate change mitigation and adaptation. An El Niño-induced drought in the year’s first half devastated the agriculture sector, with Mindanao suffering the worst damage. The combined effects of higher temperatures and lower rainfall affected 285 thousand farmers and approximately 379 thousand hectares of farmlands, causing more than USD 258 million (or PHP 12 billion) lost in agricultural production.
The droughts also hampered the region’s hydroelectricity production, which constitutes a significant portion of its power grid. This partially convinced the Duterte administration to install more coal-fired power plants throughout the country in the next few decades, a move that has been met with immense criticism from environmentalists.
Meanwhile, Luzon was devastated by typhoons Lawin and Nina in October and December, respectively. The two disturbances collectively displaced around 5 million people and destroyed nearly USD 200 million (or PHP 9 billion) worth of agricultural products and infrastructure.
The Philippines’ vulnerability to climate change location along the western Pacific basin places it along the path of tropical cyclones and other monsoonal systems. Its tropical climate and archipelagic setting more than likely magnifies the effects of increases in both land and sea surface temperatures, resulting in impacts such as sea level rise and heavy rainfall episodes.
Global temperatures continue to rise, which threatens to produce more severe impacts of climate change. The year 2016 was the warmest on record, with an increase of 0.94 degree Celsius since 1850. If proper mechanisms for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions are not effectively implemented, extreme weather episodes are projected to increase in both frequency and intensity within the next century, as revealed in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unfortunately, the Philippines figures to be one of the nations that will be most affected by such impacts in a 1.5-degree-warmer world.
The difference between 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius
Limiting the temperature spike to 1.5 degree Celsius instead of higher magnitudes have significant implications on the environmental and economic stability of the Philippines. As its economy is still reliant on agricultural production and rich marine resources, the disruptions in these ecosystems would hinder sustainable development for the country.
A 2015 report released by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reveals that for countries located along the Pacific Ocean such as the Philippines, a 2-degree increase would be too severe for marine species to migrate to more tolerable regions as a result of increased ocean acidity and temperature. This would lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems and fisheries, resulting in the loss of livelihood for millions of residents.
A 2-degree Celsius increase would also lead to a more rapid sea level rise, which can result in the displacement of at least 10 million Filipinos living along the coasts. A study by European scientists projects that a 2-degree increase would increase sea levels by 50 centimeters in 2100, as opposed to a 40-centimeter rise in a 1.5-degree increase. Such a mass relocation necessitates the establishment of new communities on higher lands. As a result, socioeconomic and environmental issues such as deforestation, urbanization, land use, agricultural production, and biodiversity conservation may worsen as a result of increased human activity in these areas.
This study also reveals that crop yields in tropical regions will decrease more drastically in a 2-degree than a 1.5-degree increase scenario. The warmer case projects a 16 percent decrease in wheat production and a 6 percent decline in maize harvests, which is significantly higher than the 9 and 3-percent drop for said crops in the other scenario. Such a decline may result in more incidents such as the conflict between drought-affected farmers and the police in Kidapawan, North Cotabato last April 2016.
Even though a 1.5-degree Celsius increase would still lead to more extreme impacts due to climate change, a 2-degree rise would still be less suitable for promoting sustainable development and lessening ecological disturbances. Hence, the Philippines needs the world to warm as less as possible to allow for a more efficient implementation of its mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Challenges and issues in the Philippines
As the Philippines will continue to experience the worsening effects of a warming world, it is imperative for the country to take the necessary steps towards strengthening its adaptive capacity whilst exploring a more sustainable means of economic development. While the ratification of the Paris agreement is a significant achievement for the country’s efforts against climate change, numerous issues in the national and local implementation of existing mitigation and adaptation plans still persist.
Despite the current administration’s support of the aforementioned treaty and the country’s commitment to reducing 70 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Duterte is still leaning towards the installation of more than 20 coal-fired power plants to maintain the Philippines’ baseload energy requirements. The unresolved issues involving the rehabilitation of areas devastated by typhoon Yolanda and the 2016 drought present how bureaucratic inefficiencies and local political climate hamper efforts towards rebuilding communities and increasing their resiliency against future disasters.
A swifter implementation of policies aimed at increasing climate resiliency may be necessary, considering that greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at an alarming rate. Despite the 1.5-degree cap set forth in the Paris agreement, a study by Carbon Brief projects that this global increase will more than likely be attained within the next five years. With this rapidly approaching period in mind, the government units, the private sector, and the public need to collaborate to ensure economic security, job creation, and environmental safety for the foreseeable future, as mentioned by de Guzman.
Tackling the issue of climate change requires a different perspective where all eyes are looking towards the same goal. Although the number 1.5 may seem insignificant in other contexts, when it comes to climate change, it may be the most important figure of all. For a country as vulnerable yet with as immense potential for resiliency and sustainability as the Philippines, the future rests on it.
Originally published in Rappler