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Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III is leading the country's delegation to the UN climate summit in Glasgow. Photo from Malacañang

In First, Finance Chief to Head PH Delegation to UN Climate Summit in Glasgow

Call it unusual, call it strategic, but the Philippine delegation to the high-stakes COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow will be led by a finance secretary for the first time.

Finance Secretary Carlos "Sonny" Dominguez III will be heading the delegation as Climate Change Commission chairman designate, confirmed Finance Assistant Secretary Paola Alvarez to Rappler on Friday, October 22.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. will also be part of the delegation.

The two will be the highest-ranking Philippine officials at the international summit since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will not be attending. (READ: COP26 in Glasgow: Who is going and who is not?)

"The President will not be attending in person due to the Philippines being in a State of National Emergency [due to COVID-19]," said Alvarez.

The names of the rest of the delegation have not yet been finalized as preparations are still underway for their travel. But Albert Magalang, chief of the environment department's Climate Change Division said this is the composition of the delegation so far:

  • Office of the President - 1 official
  • Department of Finance - 9 officials
  • Department of Foreign Affairs - 7 officials
  • Department of Energy - 2 officials
  • Department of Environment and Natural Resources - 1 official

Magalang is the official attending from the environment department.

Dominguez as chief climate negotiator

In past conferences of states that are parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (called "conference of parties" or COPs), heads of delegations are usually climate change, energy, or environment ministers.

The Philippine delegation has typically been led by CCC vice chairperson Commissioner Emmanuel de Guzman. This year, it is uncertain if De Guzman will even be physically attending.

"His [Dominguez's] being a finance minister is big, it’s a novelty. It’s the first time I heard of a head of delegation that has that position... Not too many finance secretaries attend – the developed countries would send high-level finance and treasury officials but usually undersecretaries or deputy ministers," Tony La Viña, a veteran adviser to Philippine delegations in past COPs, told Rappler.

It won't be the first time Dominguez is participating in a major climate change event. He was designated by Duterte as Climate Change Commission chairperson in January 2021. By law, it's the Philippine President who serves as the commission's chairperson, while one of its three commissioners serves as its vice-chairperson. Instead of leading the CCC himself, Duterte has put Dominguez in charge.

Last September, Dominguez represented the Philippines in a meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a group of developing countries facing the worst impacts of climate change.

The Philippines has long been recognized as a leading voice in the CVF. The CVF countries try to craft similar positions to present a stronger bloc in the UN climate negotiations.

Duterte's decision to name Dominguez as CCC chairperson is telling of his administration's climate priorities. It will be recalled that the President, in the first year of his presidency, threatened to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement but was eventually persuaded by his Cabinet to stay in the deal.

Duterte had been most concerned about how commitments to reduce emissions could stymie the Philippines' economic growth, since it is driven by energy consumption that would produce carbon emissions.

In 2019, the Philippine president even frowned at COPs, calling them a "waste of time and money."

Dominguez's leadership of the CCC is indicative of the administration's concern about the economy.

La Viña says this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, COP26 is dubbed the "climate finance COP" when nations are expected to come up with concrete plans on how to provide $100 billion annually to help poor vulnerable countries like the Philippines survive climate impacts and reduce emissions in ways that do not harm their economies.

A finance secretary leading the team would thus be in a good position to secure the right deals, he said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres even said last October 12 that finance ministers "hold the key to success for COP26 and beyond."

Dominguez is also not just any Cabinet member, but among Duterte's closest advisers and a childhood friend. The finance chief is known to have the ear of the President and is one of the few government officials who can criticize Duterte upfront.

What does the head of delegation do?

The head of a country delegation has three key functions, explained La Viña. They speak for the country at COP plenary sessions and even at high-level segments involving heads of state, if their head of state is absent. The delegation head voices the country's position on the deal forged at the COP – whether we accept or reject it.

He also does bilateral negotiations with other parties to gain concessions or state the Philippine position.

Secondly, the delegation head is the "conductor of the orchestra" that is the delegation, ensuring all members speak as one voice and stay consistent in all negotiating groups.

Third, the delegation head makes the call on whether to drop demands, change positions, when and with whom to align with during negotiations, said La Viña. This decision will have to be based on the delegation head's judgment on whether President Duterte's opinion needs to be sought on certain sticky aspects of negotiations.

"Secretary Dominguez is well prepared for all these and I expect him to be a heavyweight in Glasgow, restoring Philippine influence in this process as we had in 2015 in Paris, 2009 in Copenhagen, 1997 in Kyoto, and 1995 in Berlin when we were one of the most influential in shaping the agreements reached then," said La Viña.

In COP25, held in Madrid in 2019, the Philippine delegation was led by House Deputy Speaker and vocal climate advocate Loren Legarda.

Watching Dominguez at COP26

Not everyone is happy with Dominguez's leading role in the delegation. Some civil society groups Rappler spoke with worry that his lack of experience in climate negotiations could be a handicap.

La Viña, however, said Dominguez will have a team of diplomats and veteran negotiators to help him. Magalang is one such veteran. Another expert, Jerome Ilagan, chief of policy and research development at CCC, is also part of the delegation.

"His (Dominguez's) newness can be an advantage as he will have a fresh perspective and will be a new voice," said La Viña.

There is also some concern that Dominguez, with economy foremost in his mind, would readily accept deals that would focus on reducing emissions from agriculture or protecting biodiversity while not addressing the biggest sources of Philippine emissions – energy and transportation.

Rodne Galicha of group Aksyon Klima said Dominguez "should not be allowed to be complicit with developed country counterparts in terms of distorted solutions proposed by the other side."

"We have conservation efforts. There also other international modalities and mechanisms for forests and biodiversity, but, we need technology and financing for transition to achieve sustainable energy and transport," Galicha told Rappler.

He also bemoaned the government not doing early consultations with civil society groups on the delegation's COP26 positions. Galicha told Rappler that, in past COPs, these meetings would typically happen months before the summit.

"It would have been more strategic, inclusive and transparent if consultations with sectors were done months before the conference as traditionally practiced," he said.

"Be that as it may, we need to work together in whatever way we can to make this engagement meaningful and fruitful," said Galicha. 

This story was originally published in Rappler on October 25, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

Rappler is doing live updates and reporting on COP26 in Glasgow. Check this page for their coverage.