Duterte renews calls for climate justice following typhoons in Philippines — but will rich nations listen?

Filipino leader places responsibility for excessive emissions squarely with developed world, saying it is high time they paid up to tackle it, writes Louise Boyle

Thursday 19 November 2020 18:46 GMT
The aftermath of Typhoon Vamco in Manila, the capital of the Philippines on November 12, 2020
The aftermath of Typhoon Vamco in Manila, the capital of the Philippines on November 12, 2020 (Office of Philippine Senator Bon Go/AFP)

Mudslides have choked villages around the Philippines capital Manila in the past week, following a typhoon that left 42 people dead, 20 more missing, and thousands displaced by floodwaters.

Typhoon Vamco is the 21st tropical cyclone to hit the country this year, striking in regions recently battered by Goni, the most powerful typhoon of 2020.

Rising sea-surface temperatures, caused by excessive levels of greenhouse gases heating the atmosphere, mean the Philippines is facing larger storms, more often.

Following the disasters, President Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman leader whose brutal “war on drugs” has led to the deaths of thousands of Filipinos, renewed calls for wealthy nations to be held accountable for the climate crisis that is being acutely felt in the developing world.

“The problem, whether we accept it or not, is climate change," he said on a visit to the hard-hit Cagayan province on Sunday. 

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit last week, the Filipino leader called on other countries facing extreme events to “demand climate justice from those most responsible”, saying it is the “moral responsibility” of wealthy nations to “deliver on their commitment to finance and invest in innovative adaptation solutions in the developing world.

“Developed countries must lead in deep and drastic cuts in carbon emissions. They must act now, or it would be too late. Or if I may say, it is too late,” he said.

Greenpeace Philippines country director Lea Guerrero lauded Duterte’s remarks, adding that private companies must also be held accountable.

“This is the country’s strongest demand for climate justice yet,” she said. “We call on President Duterte to hold not just industrialised nations, but also fossil fuel corporations, responsible for their significant share in fuelling the climate crisis, and its unacceptable impacts on Filipino communities.”

Developed nations are responsible for 79 per cent of historical carbon emissions from 1850 to 2011, according to calculations by the Center for Global Development. The European Union accounts for 40 per cent and the US 22 per cent of that total.

President Rodrigo Duterte (R) and Senator Bong Go (L) conducting an aerial survey of areas affected by typhoon Vamco in Metro Manila, Philippines last week (EPA)

A recent study by an Australian research team found that 10 per cent of the world’s most affluent people are responsible for 25-43 per cent of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10 per cent of income earners exert only around 3–5 per cent.

And, according to Climate Action Tracker, some of the world’s largest emitters also have the worst current scorecards when it comes to the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding “warming well below 2C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C".

No country is doing enough on its climate targets, with only Morocco and the Gambia deemed “Paris compatible” in their efforts to keep warming to 1.5C. When it comes to curbing global heating well below 2C — the point at which scientists believe the impact on the environment will become even more severe — only six countries are doing enough: the Philippines, Kenya, India, Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Bhutan.

The EU, Canada, Brazil, and New Zealand, are on the list as acting “insufficiently”; China, the UAE, Japan and South Africa are “highly insufficient” and at the bottom of the pile, the “critically insufficient”, are the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

A 2019 report by non-profit, Germanwatch, estimates that developing countries are facing $290-$580bn in financial damage by 2030 from the climate crisis, before even taking into account the loss of biodiversity and cultural sites.

The breakdown of emissions from 1850 to 2011 (Center for Global Development)

Duterte is not the only leader to highlight the unfair hand that has been dealt to his country in the climate crisis.  

The Marshall Islands, a Pacific nation that is barely six feet above sea level, faces being submerged by the rising water. Earlier this year, President David Kabua urged the UN General Assembly to act, noting that “small island and atoll nations like mine do not have time for paper promises”.

The Marshall Islands, “cannot afford for developed nations to just pay lip service to the principle of ‘loss and damage’. Put bluntly, we need the funding, not just promises of it,” President Kabua wrote in a Guardian op-ed.

The principle of ‘loss and damage” (L&D) has been talked about since the early nineties, when small island nations began to push for a system of compensation to help them cope with rising sea levels.

The idea of reparations gained traction as extreme weather, flooding and droughts have become worse, and vulnerable countries are reaching the limits of adaptation.

Yamide Dagnet, the World Resources Institute’s director of climate negotiations, who spent two decades working on environmental objectives for the UK, French and Belgian governments, called L&D “an issue of survival”, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The most vulnerable countries are very often on the brink of despair because in addition to the health and economic crises, they have the climate crisis," Ms Dagnet told The Independent. “I totally understand the frustration and despair because they are the ones contributing the least and suffering the most. We don’t see enough solidarity of the scale and pace needed from developed countries.”

The UN created the Warsaw International Mechanism in 2013 with the aim of figuring out the complexities of L&D, but so far it has focused on research over financial support.

Wealthy nations have shown strong resistance to L&D. At COP25, the last UN climate talks in Madrid, the US stymied progress by insisting on protecting itself from liability claims, The New York Times reported, while emphasising how much it already pays in global humanitarian aid. 

Harjeet Singh, global lead of climate change for the charity, Actionaid, and an expert on ‘loss and damage’, told Carbon Brief that “because of the bullying and blocking by the US, joined by the EU, Australia and Canada, it seems we are going to leave this COP with no support … We can’t just keep calling for ambition from developing countries without putting money on the table.”

The result from Madrid was that existing finance, namely from the UN’s Green Climate Fund, could be used for loss and damage, along with its existing purpose of helping developing countries adapt and mitigate. 

But funding has slowed, partly because Mr Trump stopped the $2 billion (£1.5 billion) contribution and also his administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which took affect earlier this month. An OECD study found that wealthy nations are not on track to hit the $100 billion (£75 billion) goal that the fund had set for 2020.

But a reckoning may be on the horizon. Ms Dagnet believes developing countries will push the issue of L&D at the next UN climate talks in the UK, COP26, which were postponed until November 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“They will fight for it because they know that this decade is so critical, it’s make or break,” she added.

Dr Saleemul Huq, director of Bangladesh’s International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), also told The Independent  that it was time to address this deeply political and “taboo” subject, during an interview this summer after the super-cyclone Amphan killed dozens of people and left nearly a third of the country under water.

Dr Huq, a lead author of the chapter on Adaptation and Sustainable Development in the third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also said that he believed the issue would be a focal point of COP26.

"We are now seeing inevitable loss and damage that is no longer natural but is manmade," he said. "I think that they're going to have to deal with it now. It's inevitable, it's happening and it's attributable. They can't avoid talking about it.”

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