A defining moment for climate change

This makes the mid-year UN climate change talks in June a watershed event. Beginning on Wednesday, June 4, it’s an opportunity for both developed and developing countries to send a signal to everybody – especially to the survivors of devastating disasters such Super Typhoon Yolanda (international codename Haiyan)  – that they are ready to get down to work, accelerate the 20-year-old process, and beat the deadline in 2015.

The Philippines goes to Bonn guided by the words spoken by our President, Benigno S. Aquino III, in Legaspi City last May 19, 2014, during the  UNTWO ASEAN International Conference on Tourism and Climate Change: To truly fix the problem, however, efforts such as this cannot come from just one country; this responsibility falls on the shoulders of every person, community, city, and nation – especially the ones that contribute a comparatively high amount of greenhouse gas emissions...Climate change is real. It is a threat not simply to our industries or to our economies; it is a grave threat to all our peoples. The sooner we move on a more united front – and the sooner we agree on a systematic, concerted effort to address the problem – the sooner we can make a more profound impact on changing the effects of climate change. Thus, I invite you all: Let us work even closer together; let us begin turning the situation around before it gets worse; and let us endeavor to leave behind a world still teeming with opportunities – one that is, without doubt, better than how we found it.”

Climate Change Commission Vice-Chair and Secretary Lucille Sering pointed out in Warsaw last year why we are engaged in the climate change negotiating process, acknowledging that the challenge of climate change requires a global response. According to Sering: “We want to be part of a concerted effort, believing that what we agreed would be respected and implemented. That we are motivated by accepted science. That we are so inter-connected, that the suffering of one is a concern to others; That we are, most of all, guided not only because it is moral to do so, but because it is our obligation to do so.”

What will happen in Bonn 

The Bonn intersessionals mark the start of the formal negotiations on the 2015 agreement, which will provide direction on global mitigation and adaptation efforts. It is one of the meetings leading up to the Lima conference in December, which Philippine climate change commissioner and lead negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño described as a “crucial stepping stone towards Paris,” where negotiators are expected to come up with a legally-binding climate change agreement.”

To jumpstart the talks in Bonn, a contact group will thresh out the nuts-and-bolts of climate finance and emission reduction, among others, in the hopes of driving the discussions forward.  Developing countries pushed for the establishment of the contact group to expedite the negotiations, as no one wants to see a repeat of the Copenhagen debacle, where the United States, China, India and South Africa brokered the Copenhagen accord. The accord called for all countries to mitigate carbon emissions without identifying a global target for reduction post-2020. The process has been criticized as devoid of transparency, contributing to an environment of distrust.

Saño said, however, that similar challenges remain, as “procedural wrangling over issues of inclusiveness and transparency” may emerge if the draft agreement turns out to be one-sided and fails to reflect the urgency of cutting carbon emissions.  “Central to the current debate is how to treat the emerging language of weakened commitments – now referred to as 'nationally determined contributions' - and how the 'firewall' between developed and developing countries would either find itself being reinforced or crumble completely, ” he said.

IPCC warning

What also makes the meeting in June significant is that it comes on the heels of the launch of the latest report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  After 3 years of rigorous work by 300 scientists, the IPCC released the second installment of its 5th climate change report in Yokohama, Japan. The report, which was meticulously analyzed by about 500 government officials and scientists on March 31 before it was officially launched, provided a spectrum of impacts of climate change – from overall findings warning of its dire effects on the economy, health and security to something as specific as risks that it posed to urban and rural areas.  The report also acknowledged how conflict and poverty can diminish the capacity of people and institutions to adapt to the challenges of climate change.  

The IPCC report hit close to home in more ways than one, as the Philippines is considered as one of the 20 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The report intricately and exhaustively explained the multidimensional character of vulnerability, linking it to socioeconomic and geographical qualities.

Citing the 2011 Wheeler dataset, the report observes that the Philippines – along with India, Indonesia, China and Bangladesh – has the “highest sensitivity” to sea level rise by 2050, based on low-elevation coastal and storm surge zones, as well as population density. Prior to this, the IPCC had warned in 2007 that sea level rise is expected to increase flooding, storm surge and other coastal hazards.

This information could not be any more significant as the country takes on crucial steps to rehabilitate the provinces of Leyte and Samar, parts of which were hit by a deadly storm surge at the onslaught of typhoon Yolanda in November 2013.  The storm surge, which, by now, has become a painful reminder of the need to improve climate change education among Filipinos, killed thousands of people and ruined homes and livelihoods.

Carefully clarifying though that the effects of climate change will be “heterogenous” among different countries under a variety of scenarios, the IPCC said that decreasing crop productivity due to temperature rise in 2030 can benefit food exporting countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Low crop productivity will hike food prices and can contribute to lowering poverty in the said countries. But it will exacerbate poverty in other countries such as Bangladesh.

Climate change thus paint a distorted, lopsided picture of poverty reduction, one whose effectiveness is put into question given also prevailing and exogenous factors of weak governance and lack of infrastructure and credit support for farmers. Ultimately, climate change, scientists said, is seen to drive food insecurity due to drastic reductions in crop and maize production as well as in fish catches.

Economic growth will be altered. The report, referencing 2009 data from the Asian Development Bank, also said that the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam can experience a mean loss of 2.2% of gross domestic product under business-as-usual emission scenarios, or if the world does not reduce its carbon footprint. The target is to keep global temperature from exceeding its threshold of 2 degrees Celsius.

Action needed in ADP 

The Philippines is one of the most vigilant voices in the climate change negotiations when it comes to exacting accountability from industrialized nations and emphasizing their responsibility to lead the fight in mitigating carbon emissions.

The devastation caused by  Yolanda has pushed the country to strengthen its case for deeper carbon cuts and concrete sources of financing in the 19th UN climate change talks in Warsaw, Poland in 2013.

The Philippines will again raise its call for ambition when negotiators convene this week the Ad hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), the main platform for the development of a legally-binding agreement by 2015.  It has two workstreams – one focuses on the 2015 agreement, while the other devises objectives for the pre-2020 ambition. A high-ministerial meeting on the Durban Platform will be held in Bonn.

Saño said ADP is one of the “key areas” that the Philippines will vigilantly guard along with “the operationalization of equity in the 2015 agreement, scaling up of climate finance to ensure the pathway towards US$ 100 billion by 2020 and the crafting of the workplan for the international mechanism on Loss and Damage.” 

Urgency of adaptation

While the country is aggressively pushing for stronger and clearer strategies for adaptation in the global climate change negotiations, measures that build adaptive resilience should also be developed on the ground. The IPCC report highlighted various areas where the Philippines can explore and further strengthen its adaptation measures.

The IPCC said that information and communication technologies is a tool that can equip livelihood systems for climate change risks, noting that GIS or Geographic Information Systems has already been utilized in the country to help communities prepare for climate change hazards and trends.

The report also lauded efforts by local governments to develop and promote community-based adaptation. It singled out the cities of New York, Mexico and Toronto, and the province of Albay for implementing measures of climate change adaptation. Governor Joey Salceda has led the crafting and the implementation of the “Albay Declaration on Climate Change Adaptation” which aimed to mainstream and integrate climate change adaptation in policies and programs.

Other endeavors that have been cited are the establishment of the Center for Initiatives and Research on Climate Adaptation and introduction of the Albay Integrated Agricultural Rehabilitation Program, which provided farmers and fisherfolk with technological and food assistance. The IPCC report said that local initiatives have been made possible because of “elected and local leadership, cooperation among national and local governments, private sectors, and communities; and the participation of boundary organizations, scientists and experts.”

While adaptation is urgent, we never adapt adequately whatever we do and regardless of the resources we put into this effort. The truth is that the effects of climate change are ubiquitous and growing exponentially, making it impossible for adaptation programs to ever catch up.

Urban areas, where majority of the world’s population live in, can suffer from damaged infrastructure systems such as water and energy supply and services. Rural areas, on the other hand, may face problems on water availability, which will affect economic activities and food security. Other factors such as poverty, under-investment in agriculture and lack of clear laws or policies on land tenure are seen to increase the effects of climate change to people in rural areas. The IPCC warned that in extreme cases, climate change can trigger or worsen conflict due to scarcity in resources.

Moving on with the climate agenda

Just this week, United States President Barack Obama announced a Climate Action Plan which includes concrete mitigation goals, as well as domestic adaptation programs. President Obama also argues that “it is imperative for the United States to couple action at home with leadership internationally.” According to him: “America must help forge a truly global solution to this global challenge by galvanizing international action to significantly reduce emissions, prepare for climate impacts, and drive progress through the international negotiations.”

The world needs to see pronouncements like these turn into real commitments. Unfortunately, climate change negotiations continue to be bogged down by the lack of ambition and political will among countries to reduce their greenhouse gases. We must break that pattern and change it to forward momentum.

The Philippine delegation has an important role to play to make that happen. For the last 20 years, we have been one of the most influential countries in the negotiating process because of the very strong collaboration between our government agencies and citizen organizations. There is some discussion now in government about changing this, but we are confident that good sense and strategic thinking will prevail. We are also confident the Philippine delegation will be as effective as usual next week not only in Bonn, but also in the tough negotiations on the road to Lima and Paris.

As one of us (Dean La Viña), posted on Facebook, “Abandoning that approach will be tragic and a major disaster for the country. That observation is based on 20 years of involvement in the climate change negotiations as a technical adviser in the first conference of the parties in Berlin in 1995, former head of the Philippine of delegation and chief negotiator for the country during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, and as a chair of important negotiating bodies in Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009, and Durban in 2011.

In Bonn, it is our hope that the world will be able to finally move forward, even if slowly at first, toward consensus. The science is clear and the solutions have been identified: what is needed is action. – Rappler.com