In his State of the Nation Address this year, President Duterte seemingly put importance on environmental issues, mentioning climate change, mining, adaptation, and disasters in his more than two-hour long speech.
The President specifically mentioned “drought and long dry spells affecting food production in Mindanao” and asked “all agencies involved in food production to look into this and act accordingly.”
He also said, “Responsible, regulated and sustainable development is what we advocate and require. The protection of the environment must be made a priority..” and called on Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management to work on undertaking disaster measures.
To be fair, this is the first in many years that environment and climate change was mentioned more than just in passing. Former Department of Energy and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez might have done a good job in giving more importance to environmental issues than any of her predecessors. It was during Lopez’s brief stint as environment secretary that climate change and mining issues were put forward as urgent and important.
While Duterte claims that he supports sustainable development and protection of the environment, let’s take a look at what he has actually done in his one year as president of the country.
First, Duterte signed the Paris Agreement, but not after a strong lobby by environmental groups, senators, and his cabinet. The President has yo-yoed on his stand about the said international agreement, where he once said that the agreement will impede the Philippines’ economic growth and industrialization. He even once said he wanted to kick an ambassador to the Philippines for talking him into signing the agreement.
In the end, however, the President listened to his cabinet who saw it necessary for the Philippines to ratify the agreement and continue to be actively engaged in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which happens on a yearly basis.
Second, Duterte appointed Gina Lopez as his environmental secretary, but has failed to get the approval of the Commission on Appointments after her relentless fight against irresponsible mining. Lopez also supported the community in Bataan who complained of diseases brought about the coal fired power plants of San Miguel Corporation.
After Lopez, Roy Cimatu was appointed as the DENR secretary, who, after barely 2 months in office, has allowed regional and local officers to process environmental compliance certificates. Lopez earlier ordered that all ECC’s must be processed in the office of the secretary. ECCs are given to certify that new projects will not cause significant negative environmental impact. Projects such as coal-fired power plants, for example, need an ECC to operate.
In the past, ECCs were issued by local and regional offices, which made it easier for any project to get approved. The reason is quite obvious: it’s easier for corruption to happen at the local and regional level and businesses can easily take advantage of this.
So while Duterte has given his support to Gina Lopez, it is confounding that during the decision of the Commission of Appointments, he did not seem to use his influence and left everything to the discretion of the commission.
In Duterte’s one year in office, it seems that the President has been on the fence about the environment. He says one thing and does another thing, which isn’t surprising given his record in all other issues.
What is good about the President is that he is open to listening to his advisers, which is better than having a concrete stand about something one does not fully understand. It is better, for example, than when Aquino outrightly criticized renewable energy in his 2013 Sona.
The challenge remains, however, for the President. The Paris Agreement has now been ratified by the Philippines. He has already pronounced his support for sustainable development, and has very strongly said he will be stricter with mining corporations. There will be expectations of him and his administration.
As one of the signatories of the Paris Agreement, the Philippines has committed to reduce carbon emissions. What will Mr. Duterte and his government do about it? Will we expect our transition to renewable energy and move away from fossil fuel like coal? And what about our adaptation strategies, how will his government ensure that the Philippines will be prepared for climate change impacts?
As a president who has committed to sustainable development and environmental protection, can we expect that communities affected by big mining and coal corporations be put as a priority instead of the money that these companies make? Can we expect that when communities fight for their rights to a clean and healthy environment that their voices will be heard and actions will be taken?
Duterte still has five years in office. What he will do in the next years will weigh more than his words. More importantly, his actions will determine how much the Philippines can withstand climate change impacts. The sincerity of what he said in his Sona will either help protect Filipinos’ lives and livelihood, or put Filipinos more at risk. One thing is for sure, he will be held accountable for whatever he does— or doesn’t do.
Renee Karunungan is a climate advocate and has been tracking the UN climate negotiations.