Unprecedented climate change investigation begins: what does this mean for renewables?

04 Oct 2016   lucyejwoods

A human rights investigation into the carbon emissions of 47 companies begins in the Philippines this month.

The investigation is an inquiry into human rights violations as a result of climate change.

The inquiry focuses on 47 so-called ‘Carbon Major’ companies. Mostly fossil fuel and cement producers, the list includes Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and Total.

The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (a constitutionally independent office that investigates human rights breaches) gave the Carbon Majors 45 days, from 21 July to respond to a legal order.

The order demands responses to a petition filed by citizen groups, charities, and NGOs, including Greenpeace South East Asia.

Greenpeace legal advisor Zelda Soriano explains the next stage is either further responses from the petitioners, or public hearings and field visits. Soriano estimates the investigation will take two years, and hopes the focus will be on finding solutions.

This is the start of countries that are affected by climate change “beginning to flex their muscles,” says Stephen Humphreys, an associate professor of International Law at the London School of Economics. “There is the realisation that major emitters can be challenged in multiple jurisdictions around the world.”

The investigation circumvents the legal hurdle of causation; emissions being emitted in one place, and having disastrous effects on the other side of the globe, says Humphreys.

The legal action hopes to get the Carbon Majors’ attention, as in the past “many of these companies have failed to do anything to curb vast amounts of carbon emissions despite knowing the consequences in terms of human harm, human health and human life,” says Humphreys. “This is huge,” because if the Carbon Majors were “to stop tomorrow, we would still be able to keep temperature rises below 1.5C.”

The 1.5C figure is recognised in the United Nations Paris climate change agreement as the absolute limit that global temperatures can increase, before low-lying islands, like the Philippines, begin to disappear. A limit that “we are on the point of blowing,” Humphreys points out.

Ruth P Briones, CEO of Philippines-based renewables developer Greenergy, is cautious to welcome the inquiry, saying that laws don’t always equal action.

Back in 2012, the United Nations praised the Philippines as an international leader in climate change legislation. The Climate Change Act 2009 led to the creation of the state-run Climate Change Commission (CCC). Not won over by this, Briones would prefer strict regulations from the Department of Energy, coupled with a review of renewables policy.

“We have so many laws to address serious negative impacts to the environment,” says Briones. Singling out ‘The Writ of Kalikasan’ (the 1987 constitutional right to a healthy environment decreed in 2010), Briones says attempting to effect change through the law, rather than government, is “just changing the guards.”

Alexander Lenz, Asia and Pacific president for Philippines renewables developer Conergy, says it supports action on climate change, and the transition from fossil fuels. Renewables have “helped open up economic development opportunities for local communities across multiple geographies while tackling climate change,” says Lenz.

While the legislative movement is a positive sign, Lenz says that the plummeting cost of solar, alongside state incentives to adopt renewables will be “more effective tools for stimulating investments in renewable energy [and] improving social welfare in the long term.”

Unfortunately, renewables policy in the Philippines is underwhelming, says Matthias Becker, solution manager for hybrid plants in Asia at Siemens. “New renewables capacity is limited due to legislation; they only allow a certain capacity to be added during a certain time frame.”

Becker adds, bribery and public opinion are also still major barriers that the Philippines’ renewables industry is facing.

Jennifer L Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, writing for the Huffington Post, states the investigation can aid changing public perception, paving the way for renewables. “We can start rapidly changing behaviours, investments, politics and policies, prevent further harm to people vulnerable to climate change, and move towards the inevitable renewable energy future.”

Morgan adds that any delays by the Carbon Majors will “heighten the risk of lawsuits.”

Out of the top eight of the 47 Carbon Majors contacted, two acknowledged the investigation and its aims. Anglo American, says it is considering the content of the petition. A spokesperson for Shell says it is “taking this matter seriously,” and it will “pursue and advance constructive dialogue,” as climate change is a challenge “for all of society.”

The investigation in the Philippines is part of a global trend in legal action regarding energy, environment and climate change. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the International Criminal Court is adopting a new focus on environmental crimes, a Hong Kong court overruled property rights in favour of the environment, and to date 61 countries have ratified the Paris agreement. But in places where climate change is already having devastating consequences, like the Philippines, there is still much to be done to create a level playing field for what comes after fossil fuels.


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