The Philippines in the UN Climate Negotiations : Lonely in Lima?

Elpidio V. Peria
13 December 2014

The recent announcement by the Philippines in the ongoing UN climate negotiations in Lima, Peru that it now heads the Climate Vulnerability Forum, a small group of twenty (20) countries frequently affected by the adverse effects of climate change, indicates a major shift, if not an overhaul, in position for the Philippines in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which needs to be understood why it was something that had to happen and what now is in store for the country given that it expressed willingness to do its “fair share” in cutting its emissions, what it will mean for the country’s development prospects and given that the current negotiations has gone overtime, whether the Philippines is making an impact there now given its so-called “pivot” in its positioning in the UN climate negotiations.

Why It Had to Happen

There is actually a convergence that had happened at the level of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs as well as the Climate Change Commission where a decision has emerged that indeed it is time for the Philippines to carve its own “national interest-based” position which capitalizes on it being a low middle-income country frequently on top of the list of countries which are frequently hit by strong typhoons, in other words, vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The Department of Foreign Affairs expressed in one public meeting last 5 November that the Philippines should exercise this flexibility by not associating itself with the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), an informal group of countries to which the Philippines has come to be associated actually only recently, starting from mid-2012 which grew prominently during UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) 18 in Doha, Qatar given that Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Saño has always read some of its statements and has figured prominently in negotiations in the various adhoc working groups in the UNFCCC as its spokesperson.

Of course, with this shift, it is now for Climate Change Commissioner Saño and other agencies who may also be unhappy about this, to raise the issue, whether this change in stance of the Philippines as articulated by Climate Change Commission Vice-Chair Lucille Sering arose out of a collegial decision by the Commission, a legal peculiarity in the mandate of the Climate Change Commission as required by Republic Act 10174 and amplified by its internal rules which internal rules, by the way, even up to now, has not yet been signed by the Chair of the Climate Change Commission, the Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.

This shift though, is something that is waiting to happen, what with President Aquino’s speech in the UN General Assembly in New York in September (see September 28, 2014 blog here), where he said : “everyone here has to do everything they can to address climate change without first waiting for their neighbors to engage in action”, indicative of a proactive stance which will not bother with whatever developments may happen in the UNFCCC, just to show that the Philippines is doing something, especially on climate change mitigation.


The recent interview by Aksyon Klima’s Denise Fontanilla of Ateneo School of Government’s Dean Tony La Viña, who also serves as the spokesperson of the Philippine delegation in Lima, serves to further illuminate the reasons why the Philippines had to make the shift, as Dean Tony explains:


We are victims, we are affected by climate change, it is in our interest that all countries reduce emissions, no exceptions, according to their ability and to some extent historical responsibility. But I think more important is ability than historical responsibility.


Explaining this further, he also said:


The idea here is to emphasize what we can do, because we can do something. The idea here is to actually say that developing countries through the years have taken on accountability as well.


He also said something about those developing countries whose emissions have already gone up:

I don’t understand why people don’t see that countries that from becoming developing have become developed countries. Countries that used to have very little contribution to emissions have now much higher, maybe even the top emissions in the world, you know what I mean? And why would the responsibility not change because of that? It doesn’t make sense.


While it may be understandable that the Philippines is calling for an urgent action of all countries involved, which is also what the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) have been pushing in the UNFCCC, what it all boils down to is changed responsibility for countries that used to be small and are now big emitters, such that these developing countries that are now having big emissions, should also cut their emissions commensurate to what they are emitting.


But this is not what common-but-differentiated-responsibility (CBDR) is all about. If we may bring back what Art. 3.1 of the text of the Convention itself says on this, it reads, in full:


The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.


CBDR as such means developed countries will take the lead in combating climate change, which means, the developed countries will have to make the most cuts in emissions, in order that the stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the over-arching objective of the Convention, will be achieved. This is what differentiated responsibilities will mean.

For the Philippines to call for a different set of responsibilities now among developing countries, because some have become developed and some have not, is to run away from this position and perhaps sit alongside developed country Parties and its allies who are also calling on all countries to cut emissions. It will help greatly the negotiations after this Lima COP if the Philippines can articulate clearly what that changed responsibility would mean, in specific terms, in a manner that considers the interests of its fellow G77&China member-states.


Indeed, with this position, as what Dean Tony had said:
that the Philippines is freer now that we are out of the LMDC and more focused on G77 and China, or the group of about 130 developing countries which is the biggest negotiating bloc in the talks.

But perhaps Dean Tony may have to be reminded as to why the LMDC arose in the first place – it is because the G77&China has actually become an unwieldy negotiating group that it cannot really come up consistently with nuanced positions on key issues because it has become a group that is fractured in so many small negotiating groups, the group is actually finding it difficult to come up with a common position on a broader range of issues with enough nuance that protects the interests of developing countries effectively in the UNFCCC.

In my experience in negotiations in the UNFCCC, I will cite the example of intellectual property rights (IPR), of which the G77&China cannot come up with a position because of Singapore, a member of G77&China, which expresses deep concern each time the issue is even mentioned, an actuation similar to that of a developed country; nonetheless, out of respect for this member, the issue is dropped. Thus, this IPR issue is taken up, among other groups, the LMDC, whose members have the same views on the issue.


If one takes a closer look, the G77&China group is good only for making general statements and positions, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it can come up with a position, but with a much watered down position. And now the Philippines, as expressed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, is taking on the stance of flexibility and because of it, has to leave the LMDC, but it reiterates its membership with G77&China while not really studying closely whether the group has a clearly articulated and nuanced stance on issues of importance to it as a developing country that is highly vulnerable.


One other change in stance in the Philippines, according to this interview of Dean Tony by Denise Fontanilla, is this framing towards that of a “human rights approach”. Apparently, this is the reason why the Philippines has become silent in speaking out on the usual topic of CBDR and equity, and has appeared to have taken on this seemingly new grafting of the human rights approach to climate change.


This stance should be further studied for its implications on the over-all 2015 deal, but suffice it to say that back in 1942, Simone Weil in her essay Against Human Rights, as explained by James Peck in Ideal Illusions : How the US Government Coopted Human Rights, said that : rights were Roman, contractual, bound to the power of the state. When divorced from the fulfillment of human needs, they become all too useful to the imperium of law in extending its sway over multitudes. (by contrast, the Greeks had no conception of rights,.. they were content with the name of justice). The tradition of rights, she warned, emerged from a world of exchange and measurement; they entailed a bargaining spirit, a commercial flavor, essentially evocative of legal claims and arguments. Rights may be easier to envision individually, but they are less encompassing than human needs, which involve more complex challenges of equality and fraternity. Rights thus remains tied to traditions of law, power, and the state, making them in the end unable to cope effectively with “injustice, lies and ugliness”. There remain fundamental dimensions of human goodness that confer respect, that involve feelings and actions unspecifiable when confined to the civic and legal language of rights. The point of this shift is that the country has to reflect deeply whether using this approach will really enable the country to get what it wants from the international arena, much better than the existing principles that have long been associated with the UNFCCC.


What’s Next


The challenge for the Philippines now is at various levels, but the most urgent is the one it is facing now – how to manage this small group of countries, the Climate Vulnerability Forum, that had not demonstrated any interest in negotiating – such that it will have a common stance on all the key or perhaps some key issues before the UNFCCC including the 2015 deal – and try to push this position vis-à-vis the other negotiating groups and achieve a deal with all of them in a manner that accommodates the group’s positions.
Of course, the first thing it has to do is so ascertain what is the group’s stance on certain key issues and work out with them a workable position that is coherent, clear and worthy of the group’s aspirations and will not constitute a cop-out of the Convention principles that the Philippines said it will try to uphold, like, for instance, the common-but-differentiated-responsibilities (CBDR) principle, that it is indicating it will redefine or re-envision, however it may turn out to be.

It is also interesting to know how its  former allies – the LMDC countries – look at the Philippines now, given the maladroit manner in which the country dissociated from the group, would the Philippines still be able to look them in the eye and bargain with them with that modicum of respect and consideration that negotiators give to each other when listening to each other’s position and perhaps give way to some of those requests? That we do not know, perhaps the crack negotiators of the Department of Foreign Affairs should give some pointers on how this is done, now that the negotiations are about to pick up its pace onwards to Paris in 2015. What has happened in Lima, as a consequence of its changed stance is that for now, it seems, the Philippines is by its lonesome in its positions, perhaps its newfound allies in the Climate Vulnerability Forum would have the force of their convictions to support the Philippines each time it speaks, it seems for itself, for now and the rest of the similarly-vulnerable countries eventually, if it gets to fully articulate the group’s positions next year.

At the national level, the Philippines said it will submit its intended nationally-determined contributions (INDC) by mid2015, this means it will have to do some serious number crunching by January such that it will have to know where or in what economic sectors it will cut such that its emissions goals can be achieved.

Actually this is something that may be easily achieved by the signing of a Presidential Executive Order stopping in its tracks all development work on the various coal-fired power plants that are being put up all over the country. This will not happen given that there are already ready and completed contracts and agreements for these types of projects. The costs of stopping these in terms of litigation and investor unhappiness which the Pnoy administration values highly  may not be worth the effort in making this concession for the INDC.


This INDC push should also reckon the recent move by the House of Representatives to give President Pnoy emergency powers that will seek to find ways to address the power supply shortfall next year, how credible would such an INDC be given that the country does not have a long-term strategy to transition its power sources such that it will meet its supposed goals on greenhouse gas emissions cuts that it has now taken on?

Surely, there is a lot of work ahead for the Philippines after this COP, no matter what happens on whether there is something concrete that will come up in Lima in the next few hours  onwards to the 2015 target.


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