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OPINION: Scorched earth

by Renato Redentor Constantino

Major global labor, development, health and migration organizations just said the Philippines could lose 10 percent of its working hours due to the effects of climate change with rising heat in the workplace even if current plans for global emissions controls are realised. The world must live up to the Paris Agreement and shift our trajectory away from a world up to four times warmer than today by keeping to the 1.5 degrees warming limit prescribed by the climate accord agreed in December and signed the other week by 175 countries in New York. Unfortunately, Philippine plans to install an epidemic of coal plants would make a mockery of even our current emission plans, let alone more ambitious ones. We will lose out and big. We are facing a heat epidemic that will amount to an annually recurring typhoon on the scale of Haiyan – no less deadly and costly.

We hope candidates vying for various national posts are looking at climate and energy trends around the world very closely. We certainly wish the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) is paying attention. The agency’s probably late by two decades in terms of integrating climate change in its planning processes, but the window to act decisively, however tiny, is still open. It’s not too late — not yet.

Perhaps one thing we can all do is to stop treating climate change as a sector or a stand-alone issue. It’s bigger than everything else, and everything will be affected by the choices we make today. It’s certainly high time to develop strategies that can change the country’s course. Otherwise bad things will be in store, and worse: without concerted action leaders today will certainly be party to far worse climate-induced misfortunes coming our way.

When countries agreed in Paris to limit temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius – not well-below 2 degrees, not 1.9 or 1.8 or 1.7 degrees, but 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels – governments decided to do the right thing. As President Aquino himself said during the first day of the climate talks in December, the 1.5 temperature target is the most ambitious yet realistic target we can achieve provided we act urgently. It means all nations, including least developed countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia, agreed to contribute their fair share of climate action, even as rich countries shoulder the far heavier emissions reductions burden.

So what explains the plague of coal plants queued up in our country’s planning pipeline?

Economic risks and opportunities are coming to the fore in stark form.

Peabody, the largest coal company in the world as of December 31, 2015, filed for bankruptcy protection just weeks ago. According to Bloomberg, Peabody joins “at least four other coal companies that have sought bankruptcy as the industry endures its worst downturn in decades.”

In China, coal consumption has declined for two years, driving industry observers to project coal’s continued decline in the economic behemoth, or at the least an emissions plateau, which in itself is astounding notion. Two years back, the debate was on whether China would be able to peak its emissions around 2030. The Chinese government’s recent pronouncement curbing plans to build more coal plants is expected to prevent the completion of about 200 new coal-fired power stations.

On the other hand, as the Philippine Climate Change Commission points out, clean energy opportunities have never been more clear. “The cost of clean, renewable power is falling rapidly. 90% of all installations last year were renewable. Recent tenders in India, Peru, Morocco and Chile have seen developers bidding to develop solar and wind farms more ly than fossil fuel plants – without subsidy, and even without accounting for the health and environmental costs of conventional fossil generation.”

What we stand to lose if we dither is beyond significant. Climate Analytics, the scientific adviser of numerous climate-vulnerable countries, states the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is far from negligible. It means higher seas, salt-water inundated croplands, longer heat waves, and dead coral reefs.

A US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official also recently suggested sea levels could rise by almost ten feet by 2050, instead of the earlier six-and-a-half-feet-by-2100 estimate. In the US West Coast, such an impact is projected to almost completely change the Bay Area. Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf will be gone, the mouth of the fertile Salinas Valley will become a bay, the flats in Richmond and North Richmond will be underwater, Downtown Stockton will lost, with open water from West Sacramento to Tracy. The impact on the Philippines of such an increase has not been estimated.

Here’s the latest kicker. Marking labor day on May 1, the 43-country Climate Vulnerable Forum (chaired by the Philippines) together with global bodies such as the International Labor Organisation, the International Organisation for Migration, the International Trade Union Confederation and the World Health Organisation released today a report on the thermal impact of climate change on labor, with massive, far reaching conclusions.

The economic consequences of heat stress on workers already imply several percentage of losses to GDP for the worst affected economies. Losses are expected to exceed two trillion US dollars by 2030. The impact of climate change on labor is likely to constitute the most serious economic cost of climate change identified to date.

The report’s findings on the Philippines is troubling. Close to one percent of all working hours in a year are already lost. Limiting warming to 1.5 Celsius – the most ambitious practical target — will contain working hour losses to approximately 1.5 percent of all available working hours, or around a one percent loss to total GDP each year.

However, even slightly exceeding two degrees would double the country’s losses. Current policies (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) will see Philippines losses reaching as much as five percent of all working hours and similar though slightly lower losses to GDP.

Without action, business-as-usual warming will yield a global average of four degrees and would translate to losses of more than 10 percent of working hours in the Philippines and, again, similar levels of GDP losses.

The climate crisis is calling out everyone: NEDA, presidential and vice presidential candidates, congressional applicants, labor organisations whose heads remain stuck in the sand of sectoral battles, rural cooperatives, farmer organisations, development groups.

Wake up.

Late recognition of the challenge posed by climate change to labor means large-scale costs have yet to be factored into economic models, including climate change models used to justify emission controls on the basis of avoided costs from climate impacts. Because few national emission reduction or climate change adaptation policies account for the challenge, the problem is effectively left unaddressed despite the magnitude of the economic threat thermal impacts on labor poses to our population.

Measures can actually be taken to limit heat stress impact on workers (including through forced rest and rehydration breaks, and increased air conditioning and shade). Yet all these entail costs that do little to offset economic losses. There are also limits to measures that can be taken for outdoor workers facing increasingly severe extreme heat.

There is a reason countries enshrined the 1.5 Celsius target in the Paris Agreement. We need to make our economy compatible with the global temperature goal and this means transformation is needed globally, including in the Philippines. It’s time to change course and choose altogether different energy pathways.

Highlights from the CVF Report:

  • Some 12 additional extremely hot days per year have been brought about by climate change every decade across key word regions since the 1980s. This rising heat is exposing over one billion workers worldwide to serious effects for health and productivity, affecting in turn productive output, poverty reduction and the global economic outlook.
  • Impacts will increase considerably even if warming is limited to not more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. However impacts at 2 degrees or higher temperatures will reach multiples of today’s levels including for key world economies like India and China. Emissions controls that ensure effective realization of the goal of the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change to substantially curb the temperature rise will be critical for avoiding the worst effects for economic growth, global inequality, public health, Decent Work, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
  • When it is too hot, people work less effectively out-of-doors, in factories, the office or on the move due to diminished ability for physical exertion and for completing mental tasks. Heat extremes also increase accident risk and expose people to serious heat-related health risks including heat stroke, severe dehydration and exhaustion, while a body temperature above 40.6º Celsius is life-threatening so that heat extremes in the workplace can lead to death. The effects also place increase pressure on internal and international migration as climate change worsens working conditions, disposable income opportunities and food security in the rural areas of the tropics and sub-tropics that are most severely affected.
  • Due to climate change over one billion workers are exposed to large numbers of additional extremely hot days every year affecting productive output, health, Decent Work and Sustainable Development on a macro-scale.
  • The Paper indicates that the impact of climate change has already resulted 1-3%+ of lost working hours for highly exposed economies (e.g. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam), which correspond to similar levels of losses to national economic output or GDP. Losses could exceed 2 trillion USD by 2030 and would represent the most significant economic cost of climate change. Over 20% reductions in output are expected for the worst affected sectors by the end of the century.
  • The mechanisms of thermal conditions in the workplace for occupational health, safety and productivity are grounded in decades of scientific research and national and international ISO standards. However, understanding of the degree to which climate change is causing these standards to be breached is an emerging field of study. To date, no international organization has established a program to assist countries vulnerable to the specific challenges of climate change for the workplace. Most national climate or employment policies do not either address the impact of climate change on health and productivity in the workplace. The emissions control policies of major economies such as the United States or the United Kingdom do not yet account for the costs of the impact of climate change on labour that are avoided through actions to address climate change.
  • A number of major world economies being among those worst affected by rising heat in the workplace, including China, India, Indonesia and the United States. Highly developed countries, however, largely experience marginal effects due to limited exposed sectors (especially agriculture) and comparatively less extreme heat. The asymmetric impact will worsen global economic inequalities in particular given that the worst effects concern Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as well as middle income, emerging economies. Sectors worst affected include agriculture and manufacturing and workers in any sector are affected even if acclimatized whenever safety heat thresholds are exceeded due to rising heat.
  • Changes are fast-paced as global warming progresses: since 1980, Kolkata, India for example has experienced an average increase of 30+ additional extreme heat days which significantly reduce worker output; on average, affected regions are experiencing approximately one dozen additional extreme heat days a year with every new decade. Each additional day of extreme heat is an additional day when workers produce lower outputs, are exposed to heat-related health risks and injury, with reduced contributions to family incomes, company production and macro-economic output.
  • The challenges of rising heat due to climate change can be addressed for instance through increased air conditioning, mandatory rest and rehydration breaks, increased outdoor shade, and other measures, however most of these responses also entail costs and air conditioning is energy intensive and also implies increased greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Even as warming reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius, a considerable increase in the impact of climate change for the workplace will be realized across multiple world regions, undermining public health, economic growth and sustainable development. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring temperatures do not exceed the goal of the Paris Agreement on 1.5 degrees Celsius is indispensable to ensuring labour protection and the economic and health impact of climate change in the workplace remains manageable.
  • The effect of extreme heat in the workplace implies serious consequences for meeting the majority of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meaning addressing the impacts of climate change on labour affect the ability of the international community to fulfill the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda in priority areas such as poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. SDGs that are directly affected include: poverty (SDG1), hunger (2), health (3), education (4), gender (5), income inequalities (10), good jobs and growth (8), sustainable cities and communities (11), and climate change (13).

Renato Redentor Constantino is a member of the People’s Survival Fund Board, an advisor to the Philippine delegation to the UNFCCC and advisor to the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. Constantino is the Executive Director of the policy group Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC), which won the National Book Award for the world’s first literary anthology on climate change, Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change.

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