Philippines: President Duterte Threatens to Backtrack on Paris Climate Change Agreement

3 August 2016 Reginald Ramos, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


Since his swearing in, on 30 June 2016, President Duterte has peppered the Philippines’ political landscape with many controversial statements on politically sensitive issues, such as human rights. In a meeting at Malacañang Palace on 18 July 2016, Duterte stated that ’he will not honour’ his country’s commitment to the Paris Climate Change Agreement (the COP21 Paris Agreement) as it seeks to limit Philippine economic growth. President Duterte’s backtracking stance has raised questions about commitment of the Philippines to the COP21 Paris Agreement. Although it remains unclear if Duterte’s controversial remarks will change the current trajectory of climate change policy in the Philippines, it is important to explore the connection between the COP21 Paris Agreement, food and water security and its implications within the Indo-Pacific region.


In April, the COP21 Paris Agreement was signed by more than 175 countries. This international treaty is the first universal and legally binding agreement that symbolises progress towards globally co-ordinated action against climate change. President Duterte’s backtracking claims, however, have attracted attention regarding existing Philippine efforts towards climate change policy. Despite Duterte’s recent controversial remarks, the Philippines has made significant progress in moving towards mitigating climate change.

In October 2015, the Philippine Government, under the Aquino Administration, pledged to the United Nations to reduce its carbon emissions by 70 per cent by 2030. Since May 2016, the Philippines Climate Change Commission has begun to take steps to review the government’s national energy policy. This is an initiative to identify suitable policies to steer away from reliance on coal and implement strategies to develop a renewable energy economy. Within the private sector, energy companies operating in the Philippines, such as the Lopez Group, have also set the pace to move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy.

Since his controversial remarks, Duterte has clarified his position on the Philippines commitment to the COP21 Paris Agreement. On 25 July, his State of the Nation Address tackled the controversy surrounding his appointment of Regina Lopez as the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Duterte labelled Secretary Lopez as a ‘crusader’ with the best interests for the country, reminding mining companies to simply follow the rules and regulations or risk being shut down. This was reinforced by a statement to the mining companies on 1 August: ‘we will survive as a nation without you. Either you follow strictly governmental standards or you close down … You try to castigate Gina Lopez for being strict, and yet you destroy the land, destroy the soil, and then you get rich.’ Secretary Lopez’s appointment to DENR foreshadows an uncertain future for the Philippine mining industry, which has sent shockwaves through the Philippine stock market.

The Philippines remains one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Many contemporary food and water security issues are closely intertwined with the volatile effects of climate change, particularly within the agricultural sector. Food and water insecurity in the Philippines is also deeply affected by environmental degradation, massive land development and conflict, particularly in the southern Philippines.

PI Exposure Map to Climate Change

According to its 2015 Global Hunger Index, the International Food Policy Research Institute has ranked the Philippines food security status as ”serious”. The Philippines remains a predominantly agricultural country, with its food insecurity largely rooted in the susceptibility of the weather phenomena of El Niño and La Niña. In March 2016, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration presented findings from the Department of Agriculture to the joint House Special Committees on Food Security and Climate Change demonstrating that the agriculture sector lost 4.77 billion pesos ($135 million) in 2015 due to dry spells. The climate change and agricultural discourse within the Philippines has promoted a raft of innovative policies, including the budgeting of various climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes and technological collaboration with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The Philippines is also at risk of experiencing water scarcity by 2040, foreshadowing a risk to the agricultural sector of the economy. The Asian Development Bank has urged South-East Asian countries, including the Philippines, to improve the management and governance of water systems. Currently, the Philippines faces serious challenges due to a lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Due to poor access to sanitation facilities and the high population density, widespread illnesses, such as diarrhoea, continue to be a leading cause of death for children. The combination of food and water security issues remains a multi-faceted challenge for Philippines governance.

The future trajectory of the Philippines climate change policy and its complex challenges with food and water security issues remain closely intertwined. The Philippines must continue to adhere to its international commitments, such as the COP21 Paris Agreement, while pursuing economic growth. Although President Duterte’s controversial remarks suggest that the COP21 Paris Agreement and Filipino industrialisation are two separate pathways, the political discourse must understand that both go hand-in-hand to the future success and prosperity of the Philippines and the broader South-East Asian region.

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