Speech of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda: The Rotary Club of Makati EDSA Meeting

August 17, 2021

Allow me to start with a couple of questions:    

What if we were truly a hive mind, collectively building an economy that is so well matched to our environment, our climate, our culture and our needs?

What if we were not anchored on all the known parameters of success and economic indicators and had a chance to have a post-pandemic economy that is so well matched that we will just sail through our recovery?

Greetings to everyone here who are all positive agents of change for a greener supply chain.

Thank you to the Rotary Club of Makati EDSA for inviting me to speak before you today. As we have no time to lose, every day counts and we need to count warm bodies to engage in efforts to do this.  Every peso that moves through this economy counts.

Thirty years ago, as a young journalist, I was already trying to be a game changer, and I found my place as a legislator and policymaker in 1998.  What I have observed through those decades is that change can happen quickly when there is a lynchpin.  In the last three years, we have had thousands of scientists declare the existential threat to life as we know it.   

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that the window to bring us back from the brink of a climate catastrophe is only until 2030.  Global greenhouse gas emissions from our fossil fuel-based industries and sectors must fall sharply and urgently to limit global warming and minimize loss and damage from more frequent, more severe, and irreversible impacts of climate change.  

In 2019, the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) also said that we face ecosystems collapse and the extinction of a million species unless we make drastic reforms. 

Then we were hit by the biggest eye-opener any living generation has ever known: COVID-19. 

And this year, economic managers are grappling with reopening economies in the face of all these threats, slowly realizing the truth—that economics are based primarily on ecosystems.  They cannot continue to grow and thrive in the throes of ecosystem collapse.

In my three six-year terms in the Senate—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; and the Climate Change Act, which created the Philippine Climate Change Commission, as well as the People’s Survival Fund, among others.

In 2018, I managed to get the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act through to passage. This legislated the protection and preservation of 94 important ecosystems, from only 13 protected areas for nearly thirty years prior. This is a critical piece of legislation that constitutes over 15% of the land area of the country because as we see ecosystems crumble under the weight of what is coined as “development,” we need to protect and preserve our best ecosystems, the prime examples of our habitats, our “Noah’s Arks”.  Although this time, the flood is of our own making.

I have been working on these very issues in Congress since my first term as Senator in 1998. In the 17th Congress, I chaired three Senate Committees—Foreign Relations, Climate Change, and Finance—and in these capacities, I was able to facilitate our concurrence in critical treaties, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, as well as to redirect certain budgets towards sustainability, climate resilience, and to government programs that are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Now, as Representative of the Lone District of the province of Antique, one of the bills we are prioritizing in the House of Representatives is an ecosystem and natural accounting system—the proposed Philippine Ecosystem and Natural Capital Accounting System or PENCAS Law of 2021. House Bill No. 9181 adheres to the UN System of Environmental- Economic Accounting introduced in 2006 and approved by the UN Statistical Commission this year.

You know how conventional national income accounting works: the value of goods and services produced in a country is aggregated and formulated into development indicators like Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product, which then serve as measures of economic performance. Though these indicators are useful to a degree, they do not give us the full picture. They do not take into account the consumption benefits of products and amenities provided by the natural environment, waste disposal services, and pollution, which are part of marketed commodities but are not valuated and reflected in income accounting.  

We will never be able to undertake restoration if the economic indicators we use value only the incomes and ignore the destruction of our natural capital in generating those revenues.  Not only will such valuation allow us to desist from extractions that do more harm than good based on the damage estimation employed, in the cases where we decide to still proceed, we will also be able to assess the funds needed for the restoration of the sites that yielded these resources.

More than that, on a deeper level, the proposed PENCAS law hopes to bring about a fundamental shift in how we see the world, how we understand our place in it, and how we value it. It corrects the misconception that we have to choose between the environment and the economy—because it highlights the fact that our economy will only ever be as robust as our natural capital.

This is not to say that valuation and natural capital accounting can be done easily or has no pitfalls.  

The system will be put in place and initiated but the task of doing this for the resources that stand to be affected by our path to development has to be prioritized.

Leaders and changemakers have to think in web form, across disciplines and in multiple layers. We have to think about the multiple industries that are currently existent but also all those that can be part of a low-carbon economy transition. We have to think of multiple streams of expertise that focus on fields of endeavor but would need to be assessed for synergy and collective impacts. 

We need to understand the layers of the population whose choices are limited by their situations, most of whom are locked into a situation.

We changemakers are elected by the multitudes, most of whom will be too challenged in their daily lives to think about other layers or other disciplines.  We face new challenges and need a new set of laws for these coming years.

So we have to consider human resources and human potential in thinking of our asset portfolio management.  If our people are less educated, or do not think innovatively and critically, if they have too much on their shoulders to allow them to dream and to hope, then not only is that potential wasted, but the actual asset will yield low results. 

A green economy must start with the people, with their needs, their spending power and buying choices, their livelihoods, and their life options. We have seen this shift quite dramatically in politics, and we need to see this shift in our economy.

Energy shifts can also be quick and clean.  People generally analyze their choices in ways that are commonsensical.  If energy is cheap, they will go for that. If there is an opportunity to sell back to the grid at a fair price, people will jump into the renewable energy bandwagon not because of our advocacy or because of climate change but because it will make perfect sense no matter how narrow their line of sight is. That power of the sun heating rooftops is a lost opportunity unless our economy is set up to include it as an asset.

The food industry can also start to shift.  We can grow our own food and share it with our neighbors.  In Antique, I am proud to share that at the start of the implementation of the heightened community quarantine last year, I initiated the “Pagkaon para sa Tanan” program to support local farmers by buying their produce and distributing them as part of our food assistance to poor and vulnerable families in my home province. We bought tons of vegetables from our local farmers, helping them earn during this time of crisis while, at the same time, not letting my kasimanwa go hungry. I might dare even say that this can be a precursor of our community pantries now. We even have Brgy. Holy Spirit in Quezon City, which recycles and upcycles trash. Turning “excess” into an asset is very possible because people make choices from an array of what is available, but more and more, the options are becoming monocultures, uniform, and uninventive. Summarily, one can say, an intent that is inherently good can spread like wildfire.

Tourism is expected to bounce back in a major way out of sheer necessity. It will, however, be a very different industry than what it was pre-pandemic. Safety, scale, and ventilation will be the pathways to success, and yes, plants and a focus on nature experiences. Very recently, I have had the pleasure to support the documentation of Antique’s rich biodiversity.  It is turning out that not only are there dugong and manta ray sightings in dive areas, but we also have rare endemic and very beautiful flora in our mountains!  It is already making those who have heard of these giddy, what more if we can make it accessible in a safe and affordable way? Wildlife interactions, forest bathing, and other new tourism experiences will pave the way for a sustainable and nature-based economic recovery. 

To get to the point where our people can take advantage of these shifts, we have to give them back the power to dream. The daily grind is a day-to-day challenge for a majority of our people.

So, we gave away fishing boats through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to Antique fisherfolk.  We used the Production Loan Easy Access program of the Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC) to provide loans to over a thousand farmers. Antique has always been an agricultural province, with farmers and fisherfolk mired in poverty, but government does have the resources to lift people up from poverty and all I needed to do was help them access the programs, such as DOLE Pangkabuhayan to operationalize the MSME law I authored; the DSWD’s Sustainable Livelihood Program; the Bureau of Animal Industry’s livestock dispersal; the DTI Shared Services Facilities; DOST Community Empowerment thru Science and Technology (CEST) and many others.  People might be surprised but our government has resources, but it is the proper disbursement of these resources to the needy that is the issue. And if we can only increase what is called the burn rate—the spending power that helps the people—we can lift the poor out of poverty in a sustainable way.  This will make them so much less vulnerable to a crisis—whether from climate, pandemic, or disasters.

Aside from the farmers and fisherfolk of Antique, I am also helping changemakers reach an audience and learning from them at the same time. 

These were all intended to improve the lives of our people through the programs of our frontline agencies and enabling them to contribute to the growth of our economy. 

During the lockdown in early 2020, I started Stories for a Better Normal, a weekly conversation in webinar format with real people sharing their pathways to surviving and thriving sustainably in these times. These episodes are available on my YouTube channel and Facebook page and tackle issues from youth climate action, to sustainable architecture, zero-waste social enterprise, growing your own food, seed saving, mental health, and all the skills we need to fulfill our goals for a greener society, for a better normal. 

I will let all these people from the show tell you their stories for a better normal themselves through these episodes and maybe when the threat of COVID-19 subsides, we can see that what they really did was take advantage of the opportunity this crisis has given to shift to a greener and better lifestyle and help others do so as well.

In summary, our economic recovery must include greening the human resources and skillsets, greening the product cycle to meet self-reliance targets especially in food, democratizing support to the tourism industry, and capitalizing on biodiversity assets to generate climate-friendly and nature-based solutions.

I have legislated and lived these tenets of ecological living in my home, my family, my work, and in my friendships and interactions. 

There is much to do and much convincing that needs to be done.  So, I call on each of you to be a force multiplier for living this way; not perfect, but always striving to do better for the planet and for our society.  This, after all, is the very essence of Rotary’s campaign for “People of Action.”

We cannot waste a good crisis.  We need to make the shifts now.   

Thank you very much and good day to all of you.