The challenge of the Paris Agreement
Heherson T. Alvarez (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2016 - 9:00am

In the wake of the landmark Paris Agreement, nations must start buckling down to reduce emissions rapidly to achieve an ambitious net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of this century.

This, by itself, is a tall order. But additionally, while striving to cut emissions, signatories to the accord must also take equity, sustainable development, and poverty alleviation into account.

To President Benigno S. Aquino this is a daunting and complex challenge in an era of global discontinuity. He mandated that the Philippine intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) goal should be 70 percent cut by 2030. In advancing this goal, he was careful enough to provide wiggle room for his successors by premising it on financial and technical support from the international community and foreign institutions.

Apart from dearly defining our national ambition, our INDC also crystallizes the Filipino’s vision of economic and social transformation toward a low-carbon and more resilient society. That vision, in great part, stems from the fact that our country is one of the three top nations battered regularly by disastrous climate change. On the average, we sustain some 20 increasingly powerful typhoons annually, including floods, storm surges, and intermittent drought.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines is one of the lowest carbon emitters. With a population of some 103 million Filipinos, we produce only some 0.87 metric tons of carbon emissions per capita. For comparison, Thailand, with a population of 67.5 million, has 4.45 metric tons per capita; Indonesia, with a population over 250 million, emits some 1.80 metric tons; and Vietnam, with a population approaching 94 million, spews 1. 73 metric tons.

To rise to the challenge of the Paris agreement, our political and economic leaders must begin to undertake effective capacity building. What is the Philippine work plan to enhance capacity building? What are the capacity gaps and needs that must be resolved in order to integrate climate strategies into our developmental plans and investment priorities?

Our highly ambitious goal has several vital implications. First, from a political standpoint, it established a long-term low-carbon defined path that will govern Philippine basic climate policy over the next three

administrations This challenges successive Filipino leaders to initiate and complete well-programmed projects on climate change and upgrade resiliency over the next three decades.

The low-carbon program is an essential strategy for stimulating the economy, creating more jobs, and moving us rapidly to a clean energy future. A key part of this program is the investment-intensive and far-reaching river basin development, which is both mitigation and adaptation in nature. A total of 18 river basins could be targeted for development over long-term plan, with the lalaur River in Doilo and the Cagayan River in northern Luzon, our largest and longest river.

Second, a low-carbon path must be made attractive to Philippine business and industry. Congress can begin to legislate appropriate tax structure on carbon emissions. To make coal and fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society, pollution must be made an expense rather than an externality.

For far too long, governments across the glob e subsidize fossil fuels by 400 to 500 billion dollars per year, thereby encouraging extraction of coal and fossil fuels that we are seeking to diminish. Despite remarkable strides in renewable-energy technologies, the transition from fossils fuels to dean energy sources is being blocked by cheaper market prices of coal and oil - prices that do not include the costs of carbon pollution.

A well graduated carbon tax will re-shape consumption, improve efficiency and competitiveness in the whole range of energy usage, and accelerate investments in our renewable energy sector.

Third, the combined low-carbon path and a tax structure on emissions will send the right signals to the international community engaged in technological and financial support systems. In addition to the pledges of international financial institutions, the Paris agreement makes clear that developed countries will continue to provide and mobilize funds to support developing countries, with developed countries agreeing to continue their 2020 commitment of mobilizing $100 billion a year, at least until 2025.

The Philippines should be able to tap on this fund as a vital component of our INDC -reforestation. At least 80% of our original forest cover have been lost, dating from the 16th century. The UN FAO in 2003 placed our rate of deforestation at 1.4% annually from 1990 to 2000 (or 80,000 hectares), giving the country the thinnest forest cover in Southeast Asia.

To reverse this trend, President Aquino in February 2011 issued an executive order mandating the National Greening Program (NGP). This massive, 5-year forest rehabilitation program was aimed at growing 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares of degraded or denuded areas. This expansion of forest area embraces mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs development.

Emissions cut will be made primarily in our energy, transport, industry, building, forestry, waste, and agriculture (without compromising food security) sectors.

Fourth, we must hasten further development of our alternative energy sources. In the area of clean, renewable energy, our National Renewable Energy Program (NREP) has set exceptional targets up to 2030, on an unprecedented scale and timeframe. Based on our power generation mix in 2013, the Philippines derived about 26% of its power requirement from renewable energy, principally from hydropower and geothermal plants.

Today’s available renewable energy sources and their energy potentials are wind power estimated at 76,000 megawatts (MW), hydropower at 10,500 MW, geothermal at 1,200 MW, ocean energy at 170,000 MW, biomass (bagasse) at 236 MW, solar energy at an average of 5 kilowatt-hour per square meter per day, as well as the vast untapped potential of microhydropower. Total potential power that can be tapped from all these resources will be limited only by our ingenuity to invest in them.

In complying with the Paris agreement, we have some significant headstart. The Philippines has long been engaged in a wide variety of mitigation and adaptation programs, ranging from solid waste management, rainforest conservation and wildlife protection to a ban on unregulated use of fishing aggregating devices and the establishment of marine zones to protect our fishery and seabed resources.

To these we have added other crucial, on-going responses to climate change. These include air pollution reduction in the transport sector, new standards and green technologies in the building sector, and a long-term education and information campaign on multiple levels of our society.

By the end of this year, our nationally determined contributions (NDC) MUST HARDEN into a national commitment under the Paris accord. This will require the Philippines to invest over 1.5 percent of its GDP in mitigation and adaptation programs over the next three decades.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is to provide clear-headed, courageous, and c1imatesmart leadership from this day, onward.

(Heherson T. Alvarez convened the First Asia-Pacific Conference on Climate Change in Manila in February 1995. Currently chair of the Advisory Board of the Climate Institute based in Washington, D.C., he served as chair of the Senate Committee on Environment for 10 years during his tenure in the Philippines Slfnate, and successfully negotiated with oil multinationals to introduce unleaded gasoline in the domestic market. He crafted the Philippines’ National Framework Strategy on Climate Change.)

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