Government News Analysis

The power and the furore

While the ‘greens’ will be more than happy that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has put his signature to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – he just passed it to the Senate for ratification – the ‘yellows’ won’t be so pleased if he gets his pen out to sign into law a Bill that will reinstate the death penalty. For while there’s cross-party support for the former, the Liberal Party is vehemently opposed to the latter.

Right now, however, both pieces of proposed legislation look like they’ll get a favourable hearing from Congress – though each in its own way is seen as controversial.

Under the Paris Agreement, Manila is pledging a 70% reduction in the country’s carbon emissions by 2030 – an ambitious target that will put considerable pressure on industry, not least the power-generation sector which is heavily dependent on coal, as this brief synopsis shows.

Installed megawatt (MW) capacities for respective forms of electricity generation in the Philippines are: coal, 7,419MW; oil-based, 3,616MW; natural gas, 3,431MW – the three combined provide 14,466MW, compared to 6.958MW for all forms of renewable energy (geothermal, hydro, wind, biomass and solar).

The Philippines knows it needs to pick up the pace of industrialisation and right now coal is the cheapest means of doing that. The country needs more power – a projected 13,167MW worth by 2030. To this end it will roll out 25 coal-fired power plants over the next 10 years – all have been given environmental compliance certificates; some are already operational.

Currently, electricity output in the Philippines is being accrued in the following range: coal, 29%; oil, 23%; natural gas, 14% – against 18%, hydro; 10%, geothermal, and 2% combined, solar, wind and biomass. In other words, carbon-emitting fossil fuels are what’s keeping more than two thirds of the country’s lights on right now. And demand is increasing.

But what these figures mean in terms of the Philippines’ Paris Agreement target is that the archipelago needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels by around 46% over the next 13 years. Put another way, to meet its required megawattage target by that time it needs to build its renewable-energy capacity by at least that amount. Certainly a tall order, but remember, the Philippines 70% reduction target is just that, a target.

Although not initially in favour of the agreement – believing it benefits developed nations to the detriment of developing economies – Duterte has come round to the Cabinet view that it’s doable and that it’ll benefit the Philippines in the long run.

The Paris Agreement’s ratification has been hanging around since December 2015 when the Philippines, under then-President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, first signed up to the treaty and joined a group of around 200 countries that had set targets to cut their carbon emissions. Aquino had hoped to get the measure ratified by the Senate – and thereby make it binding – before the end of his term in June 2016. That never happened.

And, initially, when Duterte took over the reins of government, it looked even less likely that it would be formalised. Duterte was a strong critic of the Paris Agreement. His argument, which certainly has merit, was that the rich industrialised countries that were leading the charge to get smaller countries – ones had yet to build their industrial bases – were the ones responsible for Earth’s carbon-induced problems such as damage to the ozone layer and the resultant climate change.

And others supported his view. House representative, Isagani Zarate, said the burden to cut carbon output should be largely carried by the likes of the US, China and Japan and “not demand this from poorer countries”.

But the argument that seems to have won the day – and softened Duterte’s stance – is that the bill for the Philippines reaching its emissions-reduction target will largely be picked up by the industrialised world. It will largely underwrite efforts to build the infrastructure for renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass etc – that it’s hoped will become the main driver of the Philippines long-postponed industrialisation.

The Senate will spend very little time on giving the Paris Agreement its stamp of authorisation. With all the anti-arguments now virtually exhausted, it’s unlikely there’ll be a single voice of dissent. This one goes through on the gavel.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the House of Representative nodded through a watered-down Bill that will restore capital punishment – after a 10-year suspension – though solely for serious drug-related crimes. In short, it will likely be reserved for what Senate Majority Floor Leader, Vincente “Tito” Sotto III, has described as “high-level” drug traffickers – in other words, the barons of the business.

This is a Bill which Duterte has personally been pressing for, though he would have preferred the proposed Death Penalty Law to have a wider scope and include murder, rape, human-trafficking, treason and plunder among the capital crimes punishable by death. As for the means of execution, the Bill – shortly to passage through to the Senate after a final reading in the House, though that’s little more than a formality at this stage – authorises lethal injection, firing squad and hanging.

But while passionate arguments have dissipated over objections to the Paris Agreement, those surrounding the Death Penalty Law remain raw and we can expect heated words on this issue both inside and outside the Senate building. This has become a partisan issue with Duterte’s supporters in the Upper House determined the Bill passes while Liberal Party members remain adamant to ensure it fails.

As a bloc, the Liberal Party is against it – in any form; however watered down it might be. As far as they’re concerned the death sentence is inhumane – even for drug lords who get fabulously rich by destroying the minds and the lives of young and mostly poor Filipinos. And yet – prior to the reworking of the Bill in the House – it was precisely those poor Filipinos which Liberal members were claiming they wanted to protect. Their earlier argument was that this particular demographic would be specifically targeted for execution.

It’s going to be tough to argue that now, given the narrow parameters of the new version of the Bill. Essentially, this has considerably weakened the opposition case that’s been repeatedly put forward by the small Liberal bloc in the Senate – even smaller now that its missing the loud voice of strident anti-capital punishment campaigner, Leila De Lima, who’s been remanded in custody as she awaits trial for profiteering from the sale of illegal narcotics.

But the party in yellow certainly won’t be silenced. It says it’s committed to stand up for human rights – even, apparently, those of the wealthy kingpins of the narcotics trade. And so, as this law is now almost exclusively aimed at them, the Liberal Party has virtually become isolated and will be perceived as a champion of the drug bosses. And in the context of De Lima’s predicament that puts the Liberal senators in an invidious position and open to charges that they’re primarily concerned with protecting one of their own – one’s that’s allegedly consorted with kingpins of the drug trade from whom she’s received millions of pesos.

So now, basically, the Liberal group has one argument left – that the legislation being proposed runs contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – originally endorsed in 1986 under the presidency of Corazon Aquino – which prohibits execution as a form of punishment. She, incidentally, suspended the death penalty in her 1987 Constitution. It was revived by former president Fidel V. Ramos in 1994 and suspended again by last-but-one president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in 2006.

The irony is that by the weakening the Bill in the House, opponents of the legislation there have virtually ensured that it will now pass in the Senate, as senators who’d previously been on the fence are now moving to the side of the Bill’s advocates.

Of course, the biggest challenger to re-instating the death penalty is the Philippine Roman Catholic Church which has been increasing its campaign to get the Bill scrapped. Its recent ‘Walk for Life’ – an early morning demonstration, staged on the streets of Manila – was described by Manila Auxiliary Bishop, Broderick Pabillo, as the Catholic community’s “show of force” in opposing moves to restore the death penalty in the Philippines.

In a recent statement the bishops said: “When we condemn violence, we cannot ourselves be its perpetrators, and when we decry murder, we cannot ourselves participate in murder, no matter that it may be accompanied by the trappings of judicial and legal process”. That’s their position but it’s unlikely to have much effect when it comes to the final vote in Congress.

In 2006, as Arroyo was about to visit the Vatican to meet the then-Pope, Benedict XVI, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church, was able to use its influence to get her to suspend the death penalty. And in doing so, she sais this: “We yield to the high moral imperative dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment”.

The Church, however, has no such influence over today’s president of the Philippines – and even among the faithful, its once-authoritative voice has become less resonant. And going further afield, while international condemnation – and we can expect plenty of that – is likely to dominate the headlines, particularly in Europe and Australia, from the immediate Asia family, there will be none. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of which the Philippines is a founder member, the death penalty is still carried out in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, and remains on the books in Brunei, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. China, meanwhile, carries it out routinely.

The Paris Agreement and the Death Penalty Law, both of which will more than likely be agreed to, overtime will have a significant effect on the Philippines’ social and economic fabric. In terms of their ramifications, they’re both big items – and each in their own way will influence and direct patterns of behaviour for generations to come. Interestingly too, the respective advocates of these causes believe that their measures will save life and improve the quality of it by removing the causes of pollution that have been destroying it.

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