Can Climate change Pakistan?

Published January 20, 2019
Continual rain caused a flood as the Bara River swelled and inundated the Sarband Bhatta Khel area in Peshawar, in 2010  | Shahbaz Butt/White Star
Continual rain caused a flood as the Bara River swelled and inundated the Sarband Bhatta Khel area in Peshawar, in 2010 | Shahbaz Butt/White Star

The climate beast is hitting Pakistan far more often and at far too many places than we know: extreme climate events have become a regular phenomenon. The heatwave that took more than 1,200 lives in Karachi only two years ago has since been visiting us with greater frequency and intensity. At 50.4oC, Nawabshah in Sindh recorded in April 2018 the highest temperature ever recorded globally. Floods and hydro-disasters since 2010 — when 20 million Pakistanis were directly affected — have become an annual feature. Riverine communities routinely get wiped away without even a mention by media. And if it is not the floods, the calamity of drought is afflicting misery in Tharpakar and several other regions particularly in Balochistan.

In one end of the country we are fast losing our coastline to seawater intrusion, while at the other, glaciers are fast melting, resulting in permanent reductions in water flows in our rivers. With the changing cropping calendar, and more erratic and unpredictable monsoon season, Pakistan’s food insecurity is also under increasing threat of climate change. The swelling unpredictability in river flows has made planning for hydro-energy much more difficult and unreliable. As environmental degradation takes place, livelihood options shrink, forcing people to migrate to cities in search of economic opportunities. Climate-induced migration has already made Pakistan one of the most urbanised counties in South Asia.

A World Bank report, Pakistan’s Hotspots — The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards, released in July 2018, claims that by 2050, annual average temperatures are projected to increase to 2.5°C under the climate ‘sensitive scenario’ (which represents a future in which some collective action is taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions) and up 3.0°C under the carbon ‘intensive scenario’ (in which no serious actions are taken). Approximately 49 million, or 25 percent of Pakistan’s total population, lives in locations that will become ‘moderate hotspots’ by 2050 under the carbon intensive scenario. Containing the temperature is essential to prevent major areas of Pakistan from becoming uninhabitable in a future not too far away.

The impact from global climate change has the potential to threaten our security as well. But in order to meet the challenges, the country will first have to learn how to negotiate and follow words with action...

Climate change poses a serious threat to the living standards of the vast population of Pakistan. The report further indicates Sindh province as the most vulnerable hotspot. With a GDP per capita of US $1,400, Sindh is the second-largest economy of Pakistan and contributes 30 percent to the national GDP. Its economy is highly diversified, ranging from heavy industry and finance centred in and around Karachi to a substantial agricultural base along the Indus River. Changes in precipitation and temperature threaten to impede the future growth of this region. According to the report, Hyderabad district in Sindh emerges as the top hotspot, followed by Mirpur Khas and Sukkur districts.

The second most vulnerable hotspot is the densely populated province of Punjab. Punjab has the largest economy, contributing 53.3 percent to Pakistan’s GDP, and is known for its relative prosperity with the lowest poverty rate of all the provinces. However, its wealth is unevenly distributed, with the northern portion being relatively well off economically and the southern portion being one of the most impoverished areas in the country. Long-term climate vulnerability thus carries implications for both shared prosperity and poverty reduction of this province.

Interestingly, some of the most densely populated cities — including Lahore, Multan, and Faisalabad — emerge among the top 10 hotspot districts. This indicates the importance for preparing not only the more impoverished areas for the adverse effects of climate change, but also protecting the economic hubs of the province. With a limited and fast-closing window of opportunity to tackle this global challenge, it is more important now for Pakistan to engage in global climate change discourse and accordingly adjust its development agenda. There is no better place than international climate negotiations to learn what’s really at stake for us and our society.


The world climate has changed fundamentally since the Earth Summit that was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1991 where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted, together with two other conventions — the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and Convention on Combating Desertification (CCD). Both CBD and CCD stand, but the thrust of their work now focusses on mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change. The UNFCC has emerged as the centrepiece of global action on climate and development, or climate compatible development, through the annual Conference of the Parties, or the COP as it is generally called now.

The COPs offer the most important platform for global climate negotiations in which thousands of experts and interested stakeholders congregate to negotiate ways and means to managing the threats of climate challenge. The participants organise tens of dozens of parallel or side events that bring diverse institutions and individuals together on a wide range of issues that have a bearing on, or are impacted by, climate change — such as the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the Sendai Framework, private-sector engagement, or involving women, youth, minorities, district and city governments and others in the development discourse. The COPs have become an annual global festival where partnerships are forged, alliances formalised, technologies and ideas marketed, success stories showcased, capacities and competences leveraged and, most importantly, new initiatives launched and the seeds for new ideas and initiatives cultivated. 

Yet, the history of COPs is littered with unimplemented agreements and assurances. Most COP delegates return home frustrated and disappointed after two weeks of intense negotiations. Yet they participate in the next one with renewed hope and optimism. In effect, COPs are the culmination event of a series of far more important three or four preparatory meetings called ‘intersessionals’ that take place at regular intervals between two COPs. A country that does not or cannot meaningfully engage at the intersessionals can hardly expect to fully benefit from the COPs. For most negotiators, the COPs continue to be the best — perhaps the only — hope for the world to undertake coordinated climate actions at local, national and international levels. It is against this backdrop that the 24th Conference of the Parties was held in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

It is hard to assess the outcomes of such a large and complex negotiating table in definitive terms as there are always some winners and losers. The fact that no country walked away from the cumbersome negotiating process and its imperfect results is in itself remarkable. Reaching a consensus between almost 200 countries is not easy. This negotiation process is, by its very nature, slow, multi-tiered and nuanced, made harder by technical, scientific and economic considerations and political imperatives.

The Group of 77+China was a traditional negotiating bloc where all the countries and China aligned their negotiating position. It began to crumble at the COPs during the last 10 years as the negotiating agenda started to become more complex to include adaptation costs, flow of international climate finance, extreme weather events and seawater rise, Loss and Damage, and the economic cost of climate change to the developing country economies. The principle of ‘shared but differentiated responsibility’ that was first adopted in Rio has been tinkered with and diluted and this has made the conventional North-South divide archaic in climate negotiations. There are smaller formal and informal blocs and coalitions now that attract better traction.


It is a country’s active engagement in specialised interest groups, informal blocs, ad hoc groups or standing committees that determines its standing in negotiating arenas. China and India have come closer in negotiations as the world’s fastest growing economies with the fastest rate of increase in emissions. They are now in direct competition with the US, Europe and Japan — historically the world’s worst polluters in both absolute as well as per capita terms. Both are often joined by Brazil and Russia, the so-called BRIC countries. Middle-income countries like Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Philippines, who have stunted growth rates but potential to become major emitters in coming decades, presently are not significant players in negotiations — even while Indonesia and Mexico have hosted important COPs. Many of these countries have rarely demonstrated the technical capacity to develop their own negotiating positions or form their own negotiating blocs or interest groups. They usually end up setting up their pavilions to showcase projects from their respective countries.

Middle-income countries like Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Philippines, who have stunted growth rates but potential to become major emitters in coming decades, presently are not significant players in negotiations.

It has become almost impossible for developing countries like Pakistan to prepare for complex COP processes that are subservient to divergent national interests and influential interest-group priorities. The success and failures of most developing country negotiating parties can best be determined by understanding their defined interests and immediate political objectives.


At another level, the COP in Katowice was marred by four specific challenges. The first was finalising a Rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It was a hard ask as the Paris Agreement was purposefully constructed to be ambiguous and aspirational. The second was to control the damage caused by climate-deniers and populist leaders such as President Donald Trump and newly-elected President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil who argue that climate change is merely propaganda. The American administration has already communicated its intent to withdraw from the UNFCC and the notice period will be completed in 2020. The third was to accept or — to put in negotiator’s lingo — ‘acknowledge’the urgency for action highlighted by the Special Report that was commissioned by the UNFCC to determine the difference in impact on the planet of temperature rises of 1.5°C or 2.0°C. The study was undertaken by several thousand scientists on behalf of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most respected scientific entity. The report has given the world governments 12 years to reduce their overall net emissions by 45 percent if the global temperature is to be stabilised at less than 2°C. Ironically, three close friends and allies of Pakistan — United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a new-found friend, Russia — were the only four countries in the world who were willing to accept the report to serve as the basis for negotiations. The fourth was to rapidly increase and streamline Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and their implementation mechanisms, particularly financing, reporting, and monitoring to stabilise global temperature increase.

As if these were not daunting challenges, the host government categorically backed the continued use of coal, a highly polluting fossil fuel. Considered ‘black gold’ in Poland, coal is directly connected to its culture, sense of economic security and autonomy within the European Union as a cultural symbol of national unity. One could not miss the strong message in Katowice, a city not very far from the coal miner’s city of Gdansk that gave birth to the anti-communist movement Solidarity.

The COP was co-sponsored by several fossil fuel companies and lobbyists did not hesitate from becoming louder than the youth groups who were chanting for a better and fairer planet for them.

Thick smoke emanates from  a concrete mixing plant installed for the Peshawar BRT project in Sardar Garhi | Abdul Majeed Goraya/White Star
Thick smoke emanates from a concrete mixing plant installed for the Peshawar BRT project in Sardar Garhi | Abdul Majeed Goraya/White Star

Yet, the global mood at Katowice was to keep the ambition and optimism of the Paris Agreement alive. This is reflected in some of the key outcomes of the COP. 


COP succeeded in giving a Rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The purpose of having the Rulebook is to have an instrument that lays out how the Paris Agreement would be implemented and monitored when it takes effect in 2020. The NDCs, already submitted by all countries, including Pakistan, will be updated and re-submitted every five years. Like the Five Year Development Plans that Pakistan used to have, the revised NDCs will set new 5-year ambitions for emissions by undertaking low carbon and climate compatible development. For this to be done globally by all, nations will require explicit procedures to monitor and evaluate progress towards meeting the national commitments and global goals.

The Rulebook encompasses three processes: 1) the framework for transparency 2) the mechanism for compliance and 3) the yardstick for global stocktake or stocktaking. The Rulebook will provide guidelines that will ensure that countries provide complete, comprehensive, reliable and detailed information necessary to build confidence in the Paris Agreement’s five-yearly cycles.

Families in Tharpakar migrate to various villages across Sindh due to drought | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Families in Tharpakar migrate to various villages across Sindh due to drought | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

An agreement on the Rulebook also covers the guidance of what and how reporting should happen — including how to report emissions and record them. The first generation NDCs are notoriously poor quality documents, hastily submitted by national governments. They have varied quality in terms of content, length and format, and ambition, making any comparison and evaluation virtually meaningless. Many countries have placed conditionalities, particularly the availability of international finance for their actions. Also, the focus of the developing country NDCs was, for the most part, on the adaptation and development-related issues and not as much on mitigation or reduction of emissions. The Rulebook guidance adopted in Katowice has, however brought the focus on mitigation, as the developed countries had wanted. The developing countries, on the other hand, failed to ensure space for adaptation and financial support in the final agreement.

A moot point of the negotiations was the extent to which developing countries should have more flexibility compared to the developed countries in their reporting. In light of the limited capacities of developing countries, the final agreement has allowed the interested developing countries the requested flexibility. The reporting period for the interested developing countries can begin later when they join the reporting system. Some countries are more likely to postpone reporting for one reason or the other. India has already announced that it will not request postponing the reporting by invoking limited capacity. But countries wanting to avail this facility would need to state why, and for how long they wish to avoid reporting and, also, how they will improve their reporting capacity. Many developing countries like Pakistan will need to strengthen their reporting capacity or else will need to plan their negotiating position before the next COP scheduled for December 2019.

In Katowice, the processes were agreed for the five-yearly ‘global stocktake’ of progress towards curbing global emissions to remain within the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. To the dismay of many developing and most-vulnerable countries, the issue of Loss and Damage was parked. Oddly, in the last-minute negotiations, it was included in the scope of the global stocktake as well as in the transparency framework. The latter gives the developing countries a chance to report on the adverse impacts of climate change, if they wish to, but removed reporting on permanent environmental Loss and Damage completely from the finance and support sections of the transparency framework. Under the victory stands of Katowice is buried all the progress, negotiated mechanisms, and plans of action on Loss and Damage.

Some of the most densely populated cities — including Lahore, Multan, and Faisalabad — emerge among the top 10 hotspot districts. This indicates the importance for protecting the economic hubs of the province.

These rules are now the key to the climate game for some decades to come. The Rulebook has thus ushered a new era of climate negotiations that, in coming years, will focus on ramping up climate action, culminating at COP 26 in 2020 — a time by when all countries, including Pakistan, are scheduled to update their climate pledges. In all, the Rulebook delivers more of what was possible and less of what was necessary. In other words, there will be so much more to negotiate at the future COPs.


There were no commitments at the COP for scaling up of the long-term finance goal of mobilising US$ 100 billion per year to the developing countries, as was committed earlier in Copenhagen at COP 15 in 2009. There was also no new commitment to enhance financial transparency ; the lines between the climate finance commitments and government aid continue to be blurred as they are between public and private-sector financing. Therefore, the availability of climate finance, or its absence, will continue to cast a long shadow on the viability and implementation of NDCs. No country can afford to miss this stark message. Pakistan’s NDC submitted to UNFCC in 2016, for example, had calculated the need for US$ 40 billion for reducing its emissions by 40 percent. A new calculation will be in order for submission in 2020.        

Source: LEAD Pakistan
Source: LEAD Pakistan

Some developed countries or multilateral development banks made additional commitments, but outside the negotiation rooms. Hence, these were not part of the negotiations at the COP. Since these commitments are outside the UNFCC process, these are subject to different rules and accountability parameters. The World Bank, for example, announced to double its climate change commitments to US$ 40 billion a year between 2021 and 2025. Likewise, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced to halt its funding for coal projects and decrease lending to fossil fuels. Germany announced to double its commitment to the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund. Such pledges, however, did not indicate any progress within the negotiation corridors. In all, while the expectation is to ramp up the ambition and commitments, the developed countries did not come forward with any climate finance proposals. Countries like Pakistan are expected to mobilise private-sector funds and investments from domestic and international markets and this will require mainstreaming climate change or climate compatible development across all sectors and planning departments.  

In all, for some negotiators, the COP was less about agreeing on the rules and more about showing the international spirit and ensuring that the process was not sidetracked by populists, climate deniers and science sceptics. The spirit survived and no country walked away from the negotiating table. For more negotiators, it was important to have an agreement even if it meant bending the principles of equity, fair play and inclusivity. We have the agreement now as the negotiators did not allow perfection to become enemy of the possible. For many more negotiators, it was important to protect the process as a valuable asset. The process has survived and the world now has a Rulebook, imperfect as it may be, to guide our actions into the future. The spirit, the agreement and the process, all can serve as a wake-up call for the countries to undertake concerted efforts between now and 2020.


As one of the most climate vulnerable countries, Pakistan needs to embark on low carbon and climate compatible development. A recent UNDP study, undertaken by the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan, has shown that the federal and provincial governments are already spending more than eight percent of their budgets on climate change-related interventions and projects. Sadly, these investments are fragmented and uncoordinated. Climate Compatible Development will require a coherent strategy and investment plans that the ministries of climate change and planning, development and reform can develop in consultation with others. An early capping of emissions is in Pakistan’s interest. In fact, an early capping will attract direct foreign investment, bring new technologies, generate additional jobs and spur growth rate. It is in Pakistan’s interest that the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius serves as the basis of urgent climate actions by Pakistan’s neighbours as well as its development partners. This needs to be an important plank of Pakistan’s external relations and international diplomacy as climate change has emerged as the most immediate non-traditional threat to our security.

Finally, as countries need to put in place compliance mechanisms in their national settings, Pakistan will also need to undertake immediate actions before the key messages are blurred or forgotten. For this, the Prime Minister needs to convene on a priority basis the first meeting of the recently constituted Pakistan Climate Change Council.

After all, protecting the planet is important for everyone. COP 24, as an event, will not protect the planet — only our actions can.

The writer is CEO Lead Pakistan and attended the 24th Conference of the Parties in December 2018. He tweets @atsheikh

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 20th, 2019



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