Climate change is the biggest risk: Lucille Sering

The head of the Philippines Climate Change Commission says extreme weather events that have devastated the country are validating what science has long warned and that climate change remains the biggest risk for governments and businesses.

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Secretary Mary Ann Lucille Sering, commissioner and vice chairperson of the Philippines Climate Change Commission. Image: Climate Change Commission

There is no doubt for Philippines Secretary Mary Ann Lucille Sering that climate change is the biggest risk for governments and businesses, especially given clear evidence from both the scientific community and the increase of extreme weather events around the world.

“Our typhoons have already spoken on our behalf,” noted the Philippines climate commissioner and lead negotiator at the United Nations climate change conference in Lima, Peru in December. In the past two years, the country has bore the brunt of major typhoons - Hagupit last December and Haiyan the year before - which devastated large swathes of the country, taking lives and destroying billions of dollars in infrastructure and agriculture.

These typhoons are “validating what science has long warned”, says Sering. As executive director and vice chairperson of the Philippines Climate Change Commission (CCC), she leads the five-year old goverment agency in finding ways and solutions to embed climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in all areas of government, and also on getting businesses to address these risks at the local level.

She has pushed for a People’s Survival Fund aimed at helping local governments finance adaptation to climate change and disaster risk management. She is also known for promoting sustainable urban planning concepts to local governments, which aims to build resilience of communities and ecosystems. Before taking off to Peru, Sering led the CCC in holding the Climate Consciousness Week last November, which featured the country’s second business summit on climate change. She told local business leaders then: “Addressing climate change risks is addressing business risks.”

She recently took over the role of president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, an intergovernmental partnership between 20 countries which are highly affected by climate change. CVF countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, Timor Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

As we look back on the year, what do you think were the biggest headlines that had a significant impact on business and sustainability?

The fifth assessment report of the Inter-Govenmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued last year is a significant document because an overwhelming majority of scientists, or at least 95 per cent of them, finally agree that the increase in global temperature since the 1950s is human induced. 

Extreme weather events, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and other global warming-related changes in the environment will increasingly affect businesses and how they operate. We have seen how extreme weather changes have disrupted business operations not only in Philippines, but in many parts of the world. These events cause setbacks to sustainable development especially for developing countries like ours. 

The UN climate summit in New York last September was also an important event where a number of world leaders signalled their intent to act urgently on climate change.

The subsequent announcement by United States and China regarding emissions reduction at the APEC summit was also a welcome development. Work will continue towards a global emissions reduction agreement in Paris but countries must step up between now and Paris if we are to meet the deadline in December.

What do you think are the key themes that will dominate the corporate agenda as we go into 2015?

Climate-related risks brought by these extreme weather events such as floods and how to address them. Even as the Philippines embark on a low emission development strategy, including increasing the national budget for climate change actions and programmes, the cost of damages from typhoons even before Haiyan in 2013 was already around 2.7 per cent of our gross domestic product. 

In other countries, climate related risks are also evident. In Thailand in 2011, for example, severe floods brought Bangkok to a standstill and its manufacturing industries, seriously affecting the global electronics industry’s supply chain. Corporations should start investing in ways that will reduce the impact of climate disasters in order to become sustainable.

What is your outlook on the progress of sustainable development specifically in Asia?

Pursuing sustainable development that is inclusive and transparent remains a challenge as sustainability requires a paradigm shift on individuals’ lifestyles, which means people have to consciously choose low-carbon technologies and renewable energy sources and responsible production and consumption of goods, among others. 

There are a growing number of people who are aware of this need but that number remains small. Awareness should be translated to actions and our media should be empowered as well so they can also contribute in changing the current mindset. 

What are your hopes for the coming year as we approach the December deadline for a global agreement on climate change in Paris? 

Hope springs eternal - I hope that a balanced, well-structured and coherent draft text will be achieved in Paris.

The world knows that time is no longer on our side. The countries that are negotiating for climate change policies should start reassessing their political stand to a more science based approach. Science has already stated what the world needs to address climate change, which means know-how and technologies are already available and innovation continues to grow. What else do we need to know?

What will you and your organisation be working on this year?

We will be conducting a series of consultations on our intended nationally determined contributions, which will embody the specific actions of the country to emissions reduction and hopefully make our submissions before the Paris climate summit. 

We also accepted the presidency of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 20 most vulnerable countries. We will take the lead in highlighting not only our vulnerabilities, but also exchange ideas and learn from each other.

In the climate negotiations, we will push for human rights to be a climate justice issue and hopefully incorporate it in the global agreement in Paris. We will continue to provide technical assistance to various local governments in climate proofing their land use plans. 

This interview is part of the “15 on 15” series by Eco-Business where we interview 15 global and Asian leaders on their thoughts on the year ahead. Read all the interviews in the latest issue of the Eco-Business magazine here.

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