President Duterte’s approach to environmental issues has been inconsistent. His declarations about solving environmental problems have been quite strong, but were not followed by concrete actions. The next President must strike a tough balance between fostering a business climate conducive to economic recovery, whilst moving ahead with climate action and environmental commitments.
Despite the Philippines’ vulnerability to climate change and the annual human costs of environmental degradation, its presidential candidates have not given environmental issues due attention in their electoral campaigns. Voting is still largely based on personality politics, with less attention on substantive issues. Assessing how the outgoing Duterte administration has fared on the environment question will highlight what critical issues should be high on the agenda for the next Philippine President.
When Duterte ran for the presidency in 2016, he promised change. At the beginning of his term, Mr. Duterte seemed to be serious in addressing various environmental problems. He was particularly vocal about the negative impact of large-scale mining on the environment despite opposition from the industry. Duterte used strong words in his State of the Nation Addresses in 2016 and 2017, where he declared that large-scale, open-pit mining is destructive to the environment. The President underscored his seriousness in addressing environmental issues by appointing a staunch anti-mining advocate, Regina Lopez, as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). However, Duterte failed to get Ms. Lopez confirmed as Environment Secretary because of a strong counter lobby from the mining industry. Roy Cimatu, a former military general, was appointed in her place. After Lopez left the helm at DENR, the administration’s strong stance against mining gradually waned until the ban on open-pit mining declared in 2017 was lifted on December 23, 2021.
Nevertheless, the Philippine Congress passed two significant environmental laws under the Duterte administration. First is the Republic Act (RA) 11038 or the Expanded Protected Areas Act of 2018, which amends the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act (RA 7586) enacted in 1992. The law encompasses all protected areas and promotes biodiversity conservation. The other important law is the Energy Conservation and Efficiency Act or RA 11285 signed in 2019, which makes energy conservation and efficiency mandatory and imposes strict sanctions for non-compliance with Department of Energy regulations.
However, despite these legislative accomplishments, President Duterte failed to get his allies to approve a bill which he certified as urgent: the National Land Use Act (NLUA). NLUA — described as a necessary law to ensure the sustainable and efficient use of land and physical resources for agriculture, industry, and human settlements. This law remains stuck in deliberations along with two others, the Sustainable Forest Management Act and the Alternative Minerals Management Act, in the Senate Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Climate Change. That the Senate Committee’s head is Senator Cynthia Villar, whose family owns one of the leading property development companies in the country, certainly does not bode well for the eventual passage of any of the three bills.
The new President must prepare the Philippines to be climate resilient and strike a tough balance between economic development and environmental protection.
In terms of climate policy, the Duterte administration decided to raise the country’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its initial pledge of 70 per cent by 2030 (made during the UN Climate Conference in Paris in 2015) to 75 per cent. However, a very small percentage (2.71%) of this commitment is unconditional, meaning that it is supported by nationally mobilised resources. The remainder 72.29 per cent is conditional, where the policies and measures to meet this target require support from developed countries. While the Paris Agreement reaffirmed the obligations of developed countries to support developing countries in meeting their commitments, the Philippines has yet to articulate how it will secure climate financing. In short, the commitment of a 75 per cent reduction of GHG emissions depends on whether the Philippines receives the relevant foreign assistance.
The Challenge for the Next Philippine President
Overall, Duterte’s approach to environmental issues has been strong on talk but weak on action. The next President who will be elected in May 2022 will confront huge challenges on the environmental and climate fronts. The Philippines is presently in a difficult economic situation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in global oil prices. The new President must prepare the Philippines to be climate resilient and strike a tough balance between economic development and environmental protection. This is indeed a huge challenge because poverty and unemployment remain the key concerns of amongst the majority of Filipinos. Inaction on the environment will lead to a vicious cycle where extreme weather events in future will further prevent sustainable economic and human development.
Specifically, the next President should determine the impact of mining in communities to ascertain whether reviving the mining industry will truly improve local communities, address the concerns of communities affected by other developmental projects, and push for the development of renewable energy by fully implementing the Renewable Energy Act (RA 9513). Finally, enforcing existing environmental laws will also help achieve the country’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions.
The environmental and climate question in the Philippines is complicated, given the opposing tensions between those desiring to protect the environment against hungry industrial and economic demand for growth. A president who can rally people’s support in addressing both environmental and economic problems would more likely succeed in alleviating the country’s entrenched poverty, to move a step towards sustainable development.