Paris climate summit: An opportunity missed for Pakistan

Dec 02 2015

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Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif delivers a speech during the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), on November 30, 2015 at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris. — AFP
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif delivers a speech during the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), on November 30, 2015 at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris. — AFP

The Paris Conference on Climate Change is a big deal. If successful, it will result in a global deal on combating climate change that may actually make a difference; resulting in real commitments to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally that are the real cause of climate change.

The event is clearly important as it is not every day that 150 global leaders congregate in one city, and that too outside of the UN General Assembly.

Over the last couple of days, the conference has even made news in Pakistan, with a spate of articles and opinion pieces appearing in the English press; a pleasant surprise in a country that despite being one of the most vulnerable globally to climate change, hardly ever gives the topic the attention it merits.

It can be safely said that Pakistan is unlikely to contribute much, or gain anything substantial from Paris. It’s finest hour may already have happened, in the form of the informal 120 second dialogue that occurred between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi where they just exchanged pleasantries; but that has very little to do with climate change so let’s not digress.

Take a look: Nawaz, Modi meet on sidelines of Paris climate summit

The backstory

Given Pakistan’s preparation though, if that is a word that can be used, this is hardly a surprise. Consider the following series of events:

Our ex-climate change minister was removed due to some unsubstantiated theories about the armed forces machinating against the elected government, and a replacement was only appointed two weeks before the conference. As honorable a man as he is, Zahid Hamid cannot be expected to lead a well-prepared delegation, and deliver here in Paris.

Know more: Zahid Hamid inducted to federal cabinet as climate change minister

As part of the preparations for Paris, over 170 countries submitted their proposed climate change plans (known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDC) to the UN, outlining actions they intend to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and proposing associated emission reduction targets.

After a year of inclusive deliberations on the topic, the government first failed to submit its plan on time. When it did submit it, it watered down an already feeble 20-page draft document (committing to a 5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030) to one page; seven points, 350 words, and no commitment to any targets of any kind at all. The plan did say that despite its development needs, Pakistan is “committed to reducing its emissions after reaching peak levels to the extent possible subject to affordability, provision of international climate finance, transfer of technology and capacity building. As such Pakistan will only be able to make specific commitments once reliable data on our peak emission levels is available.”

Examine: Is Pakistan ready for the Paris summit?

It is hard to imagine a more bureaucratic statement. Needless to say, the final submission was universally criticised.

The Secretary of the Climate Change Ministry Arif Ahmed Khan, in defending the submission, said that Pakistan could not “compromise our national development trajectory to achieve economic growth, fight poverty and boost living standards of the people.”

Meanwhile, Hamid, before departing for Paris “vowed to argue our country’s case”, claiming that the “sustainability of Pakistan’s economy is at stake because climate change-induced disasters — particularly floods and erratic rainfall patterns — have badly affected water, agriculture and energy sectors, which are at the heart of the national socio-economic development goals.”

Well, why not get a little bit more credible about the issue then?

A climate action plan does not need to be about hindering economic progress — especially for developing countries. With its energy crisis, the investment in carbon emitting coal-based power plants is necessary, but a much better case on Pakistan’s position could have been made. Two or three high profile initiatives that show our commitment to investing in a low carbon future would have signaled intent; and a more comprehensive and thorough INDC would have bought credibility.

The irony is, Pakistan is actually doing more than it is claiming credit for, and there are a number of clean energy projects, such as the Bahawalpur Solar Park, investments in hydro energy and in wind that could have been more effectively highlighted. Some very simple calculations around the impact of projects such as these could have resulted in committing to at least a nominal emissions reduction target.

Instead, when other state leaders were providing concrete steps that they will undertake domestically, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a short speech, rambled about Pakistan’s “several initiatives including promotion of affordable renewable technologies, measures towards energy efficiency, implementation of mass transport system and expansion of hydro-electricity potential are already part of our development strategy.”

Lack of ownership

Pakistan’s challenges as a developing country in this context are not unique. However, despite the risks it faces from climate change, Pakistan’s lack of ownership and acceptance of the problem probably is. By comparison, a country like Bangladesh taps much better into sources of climate finance and funding that are available today. One can argue that it enjoys special status as a least developed country (LDC) to access such funds, but even as an LDC, Bangladesh pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 5pc from business as usual by 2030.

Similarly, countries like India and China, despite significant investment in high carbon sources of energy as well, (given their expanding economies and large populations) come across much better because of the leadership they show.

China has pledged that by 2030 it will cut its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65pc compared to 2005 levels. Similarly, Modi, in his speech, has unveiled an ambitious vision to create a "Solar Alliance" of 110 tropical countries for the purpose of obtaining solar technology cheaply from advanced countries such as the US and Japan, and has committed to spending $30 million on establishing its secretariat in Delhi.

It is still early days in Paris, and as we get closer to December 11 deadline for a deal, excitement the world over about whether or not an agreement is reached, its scale, scope and potential to help protect the world from catastrophic climate change will reach fever pitch.

However, for the Pakistani delegation, the conference is likely to simply be an exercise in going through the motions, because the boat for any credit or benefit that our country could have obtained by being better prepared for the most critical climate change negotiations in a generation may already have sailed.

Kashmala Kakakhel is a climate change expert attending Paris conference as an independent observer.