Earthly matters: Climate change in Paris

Published December 13, 2015
The indigenous people playing drums during the scenic cruise on the River Seine in Paris. -Photos provided by the writer
The indigenous people playing drums during the scenic cruise on the River Seine in Paris. -Photos provided by the writer

The temperature in Paris during the day is exactly the same as Islamabad at night – maybe it’s the El Nino effect or even climate change, but this is a mild December in Paris. There has been a flurry of activity since I arrived — it started with the exciting Leaders Event on the first day of the UN Climate Change Conference 2015 or COP21, when one saw world leaders like President Obama, Angela Merkel and Justine Trudeau walking through the halls of the Le Bourget conference centre on the outskirts of Paris. Security is very tight here, given the terrorist attacks in Paris that took place barely two weeks ago. The ambience in the city of lights is definitely more subdued and somber than usual, although with Christmas approaching, people are now starting to go out shopping and eating at the bistros and restaurants.

Still there are police contingents everywhere, armed with machine guns — a bit like Pakistan! Even at the iconic Eiffel Tower there were paramilitary police carefully scanning the tourist filled area. I was headed to the nearby River Seine, where the indigenous and forest peoples from all over the world were gathering on the weekend for an event that represents the culmination of their campaign aimed at “drawing attention to their plight and the promise of the solutions that they offer for healing the planet they all call Mother Earth”.

The boat was one of the typical vessels cruising on the picturesque River Seine that runs through the heart of Paris, but draped with colourful flags and banners. I watched the indigenous leaders from the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia and Mesoamerica beat on drums and chant songs as the boat took a ride from the Eiffel tower area to Notre Dame Cathedral and back. Recent studies have shown that indigenous peoples outperform every other owner, public or private in forest conservation.


The only positive news coming out of Pakistan at the conference was KP’s ‘Billion tree tsunami’


Duane Kinnart from the Ojibwa tribe in Michigan in the US said: “We are here to create a better world; I think there will be a positive outcome in Paris. Things are changing; people are changing and bringing faith back to humanity. We are realising that we are all one”.

Back at the conference centre, there was a similar feeling of optimism running through the halls. Yvo de Boer, who was the previous executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) told the Climate News Network team, whose training I attended earlier in the week, that the meeting is likely to succeed in producing a climate treaty. “Agreed, Paris won’t keep global warming below the 2 degrees Celsius safety level … but it marks the point when the world finally moves from negotiation to implementation – albeit on a very modest scale.”

The NGO Village at the Le Bourget conference centre. -Photos provided by the writer
The NGO Village at the Le Bourget conference centre. -Photos provided by the writer

Currently negotiators are working on a 48 page long text, haggling over every bracket and comma, which has to be finalised before the end of the conference. The world leaders from around 150 countries, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left soon after the opening ceremony and now it is the ministers from over 190 countries who are now leading the negotiations.

The Pakistani delegation is led by the recently appointed Minister for Climate Change, Zahid Hamid. The Pakistani delegation had their official side event alongside the Sri Lankans, entitled “Resilience to Climate Change”, in one of the halls at the Le Bourget conference center last week. The side event was organised jointly by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), a think tank in Islamabad and the regional NGO, Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA).

Zahid Hamid, who was joined by the Punjab Minister for Environment, Zakia Shah Nawaz Khan, sat on the podium along with the Sri Lankan negotiators. Abid Suleri, the head of SDPI, explained that Pakistan was facing the twin challenges of terrorism and climate change and the country was only now coming into the “post militancy era given the civil-military resolve in controlling extremism”. Zakia Shah Nawaz spoke about the Punjab government’s comprehensive efforts to control the dengue mosquito, whose spread has been attributed to climate change.

The Federal Minister Zahid Hamid, who is currently heading the Pakistani delegation in Paris, pointed out that Pakistan’s contribution to global warming was minimal, just 0.8 per cent of the global emissions and yet Pakistan was one of the most climate affected countries in the world.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, recently launched by the NGO Germanwatch in Paris, “Some countries are being repeatedly battered by extreme climatic events. Pakistan has now been in the ‘Bottom 10’ for five consecutive years”. These climate-related disasters are threatening Pakistan’s economic growth and development. Zahid Hamid said: “Adaptation and climate resilient development is our highest priority”.

Pakistan does have a dedicated ministry and a comprehensive National Climate Change Policy in place, the policy is yet to be implemented so that climate change is mainstreamed. The minister was also silent about the highly polluting coal fired power plants that will come out of the China Pakistan economic corridor, which he described as “a game changer for the region”. What will come of out of the Paris conference for sure is a big push for renewable energy, which has now become increasingly affordable, so Pakistan’s insistence on turning towards coal is questionable at this late stage.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s minuscule booth at the conference, which was secured by NGOs and not the government itself, seems to embody its irrelevance to the negotiations. The unambitious one-page long Intended Nationally Determined Commitments document submitted by Pakistan in preparation for the conference, which gave no targets, has put the country on a weak wicket. “By not submitting any targets, Pakistan is foreclosing its options to access international climate finance” was how Ali Sheikh, the head of LEAD-Pakistan which is present as civil society participants at the climate conference put it.

According to an independent climate expert from Pakistan also at COP21, Kashmala Kakakhel, “It is unfortunate that the government as well as our technical organisations engage with the UNFCCC process only at the end of the year at the COPs … Due to financial, capacity and commitment issues, we lose most of the ground and there is very little to do inside the negotiations as well as outside.” The only positive news coming out of Pakistan at the conference was the Khyber Pakthunkwa government’s pledge to restore 384,000 hectares of degraded land (by reforestation) under its “Billion tree tsunami” at the side event held by the Bonn Challenge, a global initiative that plans to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land around the world by 2020.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 13th, 2015

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