Covering climate change: Why the Paris conference is important

Published September 6, 2015
Mapping COP21 at the Arch of  Triumph, Paris
Mapping COP21 at the Arch of Triumph, Paris

While the media in regional countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have a good understanding of global climate change negotiations and are well aware of climate change and its impact on their countries, Pakistan still lags behind in its coverage of climate change issues. We are too focused on extremism and governance issues, which take up a lot of our attention, resources and time.

Journalists in Pakistan are largely unaware of the science behind climate change, future projections by scientists and what is happening at the global level (there was only one reporter from Pakistan covering the Copenhagen Summit).

Most have no clue about the importance of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference 2015 or COP21 in Paris.

COP21 is important because the world is now already halfway towards the internationally-agreed safety limit of a maximum 2°C rise in global average temperatures. The consensus (reached at Copenhagen) is to prevent the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels around the planet exceeding 2°C above the pre-industrial global temperature. The UN’s Paris conference, later this year, aims to ensure that this limit is not breached. Scientists say that if we exceed the 2°C limit, it would be “catastrophic” for humanity.

Also read: Pakistan headed for water, food and energy disaster, NA committee told

How newsworthy is climate change? Does it receive the sort of media coverage that is likely to increase public engagement?

Alarmingly, on present trends, we look likely to add the next 1°C by the middle of this century. James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that if the planet warms 2°C, “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations, and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilisation.”

Paris is where important decisions, to curb carbon emissions that are currently warming the planet, are to be taken.

The Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is a political foundation affiliated with the German Green Party and has an office in Islamabad, is planning a series of workshops for journalists in the capital to discuss climate change and COP21 in particular.

This would result in greater awareness and better reporting about these issues in Pakistan, which is already reeling from the impacts of climate change like flooding, heat-waves, glacial melting, sea intrusion and droughts. The first workshop, that was held last week in Islamabad, was on “Introduction to COP21”.

Marion Mueller, the head of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Pakistan, explained why it is difficult to come up with a global climate agreement even after 20 years of negotiations given the lack of political will. Nathalie Dupont from the French Embassy pointed out that there was immense pressure on COP21 to deliver a climate treaty that has to be agreed upon by 195 countries of the world and which would have “equity and justice”.

She said it would be a “huge task” for the French government to host the 40,000 people coming to Paris for the conference in December this year, and that they are trying to include civil society as much as they can.

“The media has an important role to play by focusing on solutions to climate change” she told the journalists.

Malik Amin Aslam, the Vice President of IUCN, spoke next about the importance of COP21.

“It is a complex challenge requiring a complex solution. The negotiations started in 1994 and this year marks 21 years of climate negotiations which will culminate in Paris, where we are to reach an agreement.”

He pointed out that a number of building blocks are now falling into place. There is an adaptation fund and adaptation committee in place and a forestry arm (called REDD+ or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Developing countries including Pakistan are also working on a “Loss and Damage” instrument, insisting that they should be compensated for their losses due to climate change impacts.

Read on: India’s next weapon against climate change? The heat-tolerant dwarf cow

This year will also decide how much emissions each country will try to reduce. In Malik Amin’s opinion, the curbing of emissions in developing countries is linked to the delivery of finance, and that the $100 billion figure promised by the rich countries as help is very low.

In Paris, every country is to put forward its own steps to reduce emissions in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Commitments or INDCs, which should be synthesised into one document in Paris by November this year. This allows countries to focus on what they should be doing and many have already submitted their INDCs. Pakistan will submit its INDCs in September along with a number of developing countries.

However, these INDCs are flexible and voluntary; how do you synthesise them and give them legal cover?

The idea behind Paris is that the targets laid out by the individual countries, somehow get synthesised into a global agreement. But experts already say those targets will not add up to be enough to avoid the 2°C warming.

So how do you raise climate action? How do you get solid pledges from developed countries to reduce their emissions (as they did in the Kyoto Protocol)? These are all questions that will be addressed in Paris. Already, a deal has been signed between the two biggest polluters, China and the US. By 2020, the Chinese will start phasing out coal plants; the Chinese government is already moving away from having inland coal plants.

The US and India deal on climate cooperation is also another good signal coming from outside the negotiation process.

In Malik Amin’s opinion, Pakistan must ensure that its development pathway is not constrained in Paris. Pakistan’s vulnerability is increasing, but its emissions trajectory is also rising.

“We have a big energy problem; we do need coal which should not be imported coal but indigenous coal for Pakistan to use in the future … there are also alternative pathways available. However, cleaner pathways need additional investment.”

See: Experts to suggest steps for coping with climate change

Retired ambassador Shahid Kamal, advisor to the Climate Research and Development Centre at COMSATS University spoke next about how despite being a low emitter (of carbon emissions) Pakistan should still do something about mitigation.

“To move to a low carbon pathway, we need the cooperation of the international community; we need funding and improved capacity.”

Already, there is a Pakistani expert serving on the Green Climate Fund who could help us in our future planning.

“As a vulnerable country, we have to see what we need to do … we also need programmes to bring this about in schools and colleges. We have to prepare the younger generation about the world that they are going to inherit”.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 6th, 2015

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