ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Online Lecture 12 July 2021

July 12, 2021

My warmest greetings to our colleagues from ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and everyone else joining this session to shed light on the enormity of the climate emergency at the global level and in the Philippines, and to show the urgent need for ambitious and decisive action across all sectors.

I am looking forward particularly to the question-and-answer session later, and I am honored and excited to share insights and lessons from my own experiences in the Philippines, where I have been working on these very issues since my first term as Senator in 1998, and now as Congresswoman for my lovely province – Antique.

Our country is currently in a state of public health emergency. It has been over a year of living in this COVID-19-shaken world, and yet we find ourselves still going through ups and downs in our daily lives.

But as we work together toward putting an end to this challenge, we cannot afford to lose sight of the more disastrous and more lingering crisis the world has ever had – climate change.

The world’s scientists agree that our planet has been ailing for more than a century and half, which started with the burning of fossil fuels that released harmful greenhouse gas emissions which, in turn, has brought about worsening extreme weather events, increasing temperatures, and rising seas.

We meet today in recognition of a planet that is fast deteriorating. The year 2020 was declared as the warmest year and the period 2011 to 2020 as the warmest decade on record, worsening effects of climate change, and economic shocks from this pandemic set us back to achieve our goals on sustainable and resilient development.

This trend may continue and intensify due to the increasing heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The latest climate science warns that we barely have until 2030, or nine years before the window of opportunity for achieving the 1.5°C long- term temperature limit of the Paris Agreement closes.

The 1.5°C goal is the global warming threshold that will enable vulnerable developing countries like ours to survive and thrive. Global warming beyond 1.5C will disrupt basic social and economic activities. It will transform life as we know it.

As an archipelagic country situated along the Pacific typhoon belt, Filipinos have grown used to 20 typhoons annually. What makes the new normal different, however, is how warming oceans are fueling the intensity of severe weather events. Combined with old infrastructure and decades of short-sighted planning, we have become extremely vulnerable to climate impacts.

Climate change is among the top concerns of the region, according to one of your publications – The State of Southeast Asia 2021. Over half or 53.7% view climate change as a “serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their country.” We see this threat at play here at home in the Philippines, which, as your publication notes, is one of the countries that are most challenged by more intense and frequent weather events resulting from climate change (droughts, floods, cyclones, rising sea levels, etc.) from last year.

Today, we confront climate change along with the COVID-19 pandemic, and our resilience to both is intertwined with the growth of the world’s economy. If the world becomes an inhospitable place for living things, the concept of economy will diminish and we will be left in a pit where it will be a struggle to survive.

In this era of climate crisis, made even more challenging by the COVID-19, more lives are at stake. Our decisions and actions —and our failure to make and take them— will have an impact on our families and communities.

There is no more fitting time to say that responding to these crises have become a moral imperative for governments and a social responsibility for all than now — when having less in life means losing life.

I can proudly say that as far as legislation is concerned, we are one of the pioneers. In my three six-year terms in the Senate beginning 1998—I have authored the laws that now form the backbone of environmental policy in the land.

Just to give a quick rundown—we were able to legislate important climate and environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act; the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act; the Clean Water Act; the Renewable Energy Act; the Climate Change Act, which created the Philippine Climate Change Commission, as well as the People’s Survival Fund, which is our local adaptation fund.

We also enacted the Environmental Education and Awareness Act; the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act; and the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, which legislated the protection and preservation of 107 important ecosystems, including open seas, coastal areas, wetlands and tropical forests, critical in our climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation mechanisms.

In my last term as Senator, I sponsored our concurrence in the ratification of the Paris Agreement, as well as recommended changes in our government’s national budget to enshrine adaptation and mitigation provisions in our government’s national budget.

Now, as Representative of the Lone District of the province of Antique, I have a slew of pending legislation, such as the inclusion of ecosystem and natural capital in national accounting systems, creating an environmental enforcement bureau as a new service to ensure accountability of intractable violators, a national ban on single-use plastics that incorporates Extended Producer Responsibility, incentivizing consumers, retailers, and manufacturers and exploring alternatives.

Laws, however, are just part of the equation. In the last year, I have hosted a weekly webinar called Stories for a Better Normal in which I have spoken to the leaders of a quiet revolution that is changing the way we all live, one community at a time. These people do not wring their hands and hope for better policy, they start on their own, they work with their families and communities and they are able to get many others on board.

These are prime examples of “locally-led adaptation,” demonstrating that we do have the shining examples of walking the talk. Small armies of Facebook denizens including teacher Lee Ann Silayan and architect Rey Solero encountered others online and are now some of those leading the charge in promoting native trees and plants. Andi Eigenman, Jerly Rabaca, Vice Mayor JR Coro and Kara Rosas are changing the face of tourist towns in Siargao. Young people are coming out of the woodwork — Ranielle Navarro won the Nat Geo 2021 award for his environmental work in Albay Central School. Even our province Antique is preparing for the expected tourism boom post pandemic and ensuring readiness and sustainability.

Former PENRO Moises Butic is making sure the Muyong system of protecting a wild area in Ifugao terraces for water and wildlife is perpetuated. Karen Hizola, Jabez Flores and others are making us all seed savers again. I can spend all day talking about these revolutionaries, but some of the episodes with the largest impacts are those about food. Once kitchens around the world transform, as Chef Jam Melchor, Datu Shariff Pendatun, Chef Waya Wijangco show us with their own kitchens, we will finally see agriculture shift.

I only have time to enumerate some of them but collectively, I am reassured that Changemakers are already among us. Pioneers in Bamboo, regenerative agriculture, pottery, weaving, expanding green job opportunities, transforming the food supply chain, democratizing urban mobility —these changes are happening as we speak! It is only a matter of time before we see them take center stage. They are demonstrating ecosystem-based solutions and we must pay attention as they do. Working with nature offers great potential to reduce risks from multiple hazards and to yield jobs and improve livelihoods, while protecting biodiversity. We just need to ensure integration of these efforts with those of government and other communities.

Ecosystems contribute at least 30% of climate solutions. The farms and nurseries we showcase in Stories for a Better Normal, the conservation projects we highlight, are the building blocks for mainstreaming biodiversity conservation and nature-based solutions and they should be at the very heart of discourse, planning, and implementation of climate action, with cross-sectoral, cross-pillar, and multi-stakeholder engagement as its foundation.

These are the efforts that must be recognized to exert greater influence on evidence-based decision-making, especially at the local level where we can best identify, prioritize, implement, and monitor climate adaptation solutions.

The groundswell that we see among communities working towards zero waste, composting, active transport— these should lead to the sustained implementation and monitoring of outcomes of local and national climate plans.

We need to unite behind science, as a way to inform our actions and policies, most especially for our vulnerable populations in the region and on the ground.

These local leaders are making the science work for us. Their actions are generating the data that is making science available, understandable, and actionable to our communities. They are identifying the specific risks and vulnerabilities in their region and working together in addressing these challenges. If anyone here is not yet linked to any of these local movements, then you have not gotten on board the new wave.

Collectively, these local actions will contribute to limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but unless policy and government plans at all levels follow through, hard fought development gains and productivity will continue to be undermined or reversed.

This is something we hope to talk about more in COP26 in November. The Conference should be an opportunity to bring back global focus and regain some momentum after the pandemic got us sidetracked. The Conference has to emphasize the climate crisis as an even bigger threat than COVID- 19. We need to make up for delays and lost time on our global pace on climate action because of the pandemic—and we hope COP26 zeroes in on the opportunity to pursue ambitious climate action as we promote sustainable pandemic recovery.

Our first Philippine Nationally Determined Contribution pledges significant cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions in pursuit of these goals. Our NDC conveys a 75% GHG emission reduction and avoidance by 2030, which is a more ambitious target than our initial INDC of 70%. Broken down, 72.29% of this is conditional on the support of climate finance, technologies, and capacity development from developed countries, while 2.71% is unconditional. It is an ambitious goal, but it will be possible only with the help of developed countries.

We would need the help of developed countries to make the shift to a green economy possible, and hopefully permanent—because the painful truth is, while the Philippines remains an insignificant emitter of greenhouse gases globally, we are among those most affected by climate change. The shift to a green economy is happening, let it not remain in the fringes.

For the past three decades, we have sounded the alarm that nature is in retreat, that we are in an existential crisis due to our increasingly warming planet, and that we need to radically change the way we measure progress and happiness. This decade is our last chance. Nature is finding it hard to catch up with our economic ambitions and societal behaviors.

The coming decade is a test for humanity. Can we shift our lifestyles, our policies, our development paradigms to recognize these threats and re-orient our ecosystems and economies? If we pass this test, the race will have a respite from the threats we currently face. No less than a whole-of-society, a whole-of-government, and indeed a whole-of-planet approach is needed and we have seen the local seeds of this global movement. We just have to nurture and support them.

We will only truly recover if we reduce the risks for our people going forward and build lasting communities that are prepared and less vulnerable.

I look forward not just to hearing your insights and experiences in our discussions today, but to working with all of you towards a safer and healthier, greener and more sustainable world.

Thank you.