Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — When Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office as the 17th president of the Philippines, he immediately set an agenda to combat climate change.
In one of his engagements abroad, Marcos described the fight against the climate crisis as “a race against time to protect and prevent ecosystem and biodiversity loss.”
A year into his presidency, has the administration made significant progress on green issues?
of leaks and gaps
One of the major environmental disasters of Marcos’ first year was the February 28 oil spill in waters off Oriental Mindoro.
He asked the authorities to give only four months to complete the cleanup. On June 17, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced the completion of oil extraction from the MT Princess Empress.
The tanker was sinking off Naujan with about 900,000 liters of industrial fuel oil. Its remains were found near Pola town.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is yet to determine the true cost of damage to marine biodiversity. The value was earlier estimated at around ₱7 billion.
The oil spill reached Archaic, Palawan and the Verde Island Passage – considered a “centre of coastal fish biodiversity”. It also halted the work of about 27,000 fishermen, and disaster management officials reported that the country lost fish production worth about P5 billion.
RELATED: DENR, five provinces want Verde Island Passage declared ‘protected area’
The lawyers revealed that fishermen in Kalapan told them that fishing was low this week even after the lifting of the fishing ban in their area, which they said was an experience seen in past oil spills.
Governor Humerlito Dolor said on July 20 that the fishing ban has been lifted in all towns in Oriental Mindoro.
But at a news conference a day earlier, Paula Mayor Jennifer Cruz said she still hasn’t signed off on PCG’s declaration that her town’s coast is “100% clean” because they still see traces of oil on the shore. Paula, considered “ground zero”, was the worst hit by the oil spill.
On April 22, fishermen affected by the oil spill clean oil slicks off the shores of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, as part of their duties under the government’s cash-for-work program. April 22 is Earth Day.
Residents and groups are still calling for justice and faster processing of claims, as they consider the effects of the oil spill worse than COVID-19.
For environmental policy expert and former DENR Undersecretary Tony La Viña, the marine disaster response is a perfect example of the gaps in Marcos’ environmental agenda.
La Viña told CNN Philippines that the country’s response and rhetoric, along with the efforts of Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga, were “okay,” but “there is no change in the way we respond – mabagal (slow).”
“First, Bakit Pinayagan, Bakit Nangyari (Why was the ship allowed to sail, why did the disaster happen)?” He added.
University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) professor emeritus Rhodora Asanza told CNN Philippines that the country is still unprepared for such a disaster as the government remains “land-focused” in its disaster preparedness program.
Fr. Edwin Garrigues, Protect VIP convener, said the completion of the oil spill cleanup was a “hollow victory.” “Nobody is being held accountable and the government is keeping quiet about what it plans to do to prevent such incidents in the future,” he said.
Read: Marina, PCG staff, MT Princess Empress owners face criminal charges over oil spill
Adjusting the footing
To set her agenda, the DENR chief followed Marcos’ rhetoric in his maiden State of the Nation Address (SONA) on environmental protection, environmental law enforcement and compliance, and climate change mitigation.
On June 26, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Environment Secretary Tony Loyzaga, Sen. to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the Philippine Forestry Service. Along with Cynthia Villar, Environment and Natural Resources planted a moleve tree at Heroes Park.
Loysaga cites engagement with the private sector and the introduction of the National Natural Resources Geospatial Database Office (GDO) and the Water Resources Management Office (WRMO) as some of the achievements of his first year.
Carlos David, as Undersecretary of Integrated Ecology, leads these two offices.
In a palace briefing, Loysaga said the GDO would establish a “physical basis” for properly estimating, evaluating and managing the country’s natural resources, as well as the basis for identifying priority areas for afforestation, reforestation and afforestation.
She said data from GDO shows only 7 million hectares of the 15 million hectares of forest type is actually forested.
Map provided by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Geospatial Database Office showing the current areas of open and closed forests in the Philippines. The agency says these areas have about 7.9 million hectares of open forests (light green) and 3.9 million hectares of closed forests (dark green).
“In the past, the areas that were targeted for deforestation were not really suitable areas… So, this time, we made sure that these are areas with trees that can be maintained,” David told CNN Philippines, stressing that the data can improve the department’s programs to maximize its “small budget.”
RELATED: DENR to prioritize deforestation on 2M hectares
David said the current 10-member GDO will use its data to detect encroachment on public coastal areas, illegal mining activities and industries without required permits.
It can also be used to identify water systems that can be developed for hydropower and water distribution – another office under his wing, WRMO, which stands as an umbrella office for all water-related activities of the government.
His office will be tested this year as the El Niño phenomenon threatens the country’s water supply.
The road ahead
“Policy, rhetorically, generally right…from the perspective of results, the Marcos government has not yet produced good results on the environment. And there is much to be done,” La Viña said, adding that it may take three to four years for policy changes at the DENR to be reflected on the ground.
David said DENR’s first year is “trying to fix the problems of the past, while at the same time trying to move things forward as we see fit.”
As for Marcos, he will likely continue discussions on nuclear energy this year, which he already hinted at in his first Zona.
The Philippine National Nuclear Energy Safety Bill, which seeks to provide a comprehensive atomic regulatory framework, is ready for passage in the House of Representatives after approval by the newly formed Special Committee on Nuclear Energy.
RELATED: Energy chief: PH can build nuclear power plant ‘within decade’
But critics have called nuclear power a problematic, expensive and dangerous energy source — prompting the president to focus on renewables instead of actually solving the climate crisis.
“If this bill becomes law, it will only serve the interests of private nuclear companies and investors, waiting to drain us economically and use our country as a testing ground for their untested and dangerous technologies,” Greenpeace Philippines said.
Another issue Marcos previously mentioned was the country’s responsibility to “clean up” as the world’s third largest plastic polluter.
Three months ago, the Commission on Audit (COA) found that the country’s solid waste management program was not meeting its targets.
COA reported that the country generated 16.6 million tons of waste in 2020, 2 million more than six years ago. By 2030, it will increase to 19 million metric tons and by 2045 to about 24 million metric tons.
Loyzaga knows this is a “huge challenge”.
“We are not winning the war against single-use plastics,” she told reporters.
DENR said plastic contributes 30% to 40% of current daily waste.
In an interview with CNN Philippines, Loysaga shared that the DENR is launching a “very concerted campaign” to encourage companies to register and comply with the Extended Producers Responsibility Act — requiring them to reclaim their plastic packaging waste.
For Climate Change Commission (CCC) Commissioner and Vice President Robert Borge, climate change action is a priority for the current administration, as this year reflects increased budget allocations for climate change mitigation.
He said the CCC’s priorities include the implementation of the National Climate Risk Management Framework, the integration of the country’s self-defined national climate pledges to limit the rise in global average temperature into the national agenda, and the development of the National Adaptation Plan.
La Viña, on the other hand, said the DENR should prioritize the issues of infilling and illegal land use conversion raised by the groups as well.
Advocates of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan) said they questioned the administration’s intentions to expand the mining industry despite long-standing problems with the existing mining framework. They claimed that Marcos’ year was an “ecological disaster” for Filipinos.
“The case of Sibuyan Island and the fight against the operations of Altai Philippines Mining Corp. – a company (with) sanctioned under the Marcos Jr. administration – reveal the backward nature of mining policies that Marcos Jr. (commits to) continue at all costs,” the group said.
In a televised interview, Loysaga acknowledged that the 1995 Mining Law had gaps, but said the mining industry under Marcos would be open to responsible miners who consider the environmental aspects of mining and promote social development.
But aside from policy change, the administration must ensure that grassroots and civil society have “democratic space to operate” and acknowledge their initiatives to tackle climate change locally, said John Bonifacio, Calicassan national coordinator.
Climate advocates and other groups are planning a protest in Makati on Feb. 28 to demand that developed nations and major polluters “pay” countries hit hardest by climate change impacts, including the Philippines.
“Until the DENR or the Marcos Jr. administration recognizes the crisis facing environmentalists in the Philippines (for being the worst country in Asia for killings for a decade), a large part of the problem remains unsolved,” he told CNN Philippines.
Joining Loyzaga, energy chief Rafael Lotilla, and Science and Technology Secretary Renato Solidum Jr., La Viña reiterated that the government has an opportunity to tackle environmental issues in Marcos’ second term.
As for Marcos, he has set his sights on attending this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai in November to show his commitment to the fight against climate change.
“There is no question that conservation of the environment is conservation of life,” he said at his first sauna. “If we can’t mitigate climate change, all our plans for the economy and all our plans for our future will be for naught.”