‘Point of no return’

07 Dec 2019


The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

AS negotiators continue to hide behind each other and operational technicalities, the 25th Conference of the Parties in Madrid will be recorded as a non-event in the history of global climate negotiations. It will be remembered, if at all, as a preparatory summit for the 26th COP, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in 2020 — the year by when the global carbon emissions must begin to reduce with speed towards net-zero emissions.

Recently released scientific reports by World Metrological Organisation show that the world is on more than three degrees Celsius increase trajectory and to stabilise temperatures at less than 2C, an immediate downward trajectory must begin with the biggest emitting nations. WMO reports put 2020 as the deadline for survival; the next 12 months have been declared crucial for increasing national commitments on emissions reductions. We will be sleepwalking our way to a catastrophe, according to UN Secretary General Antonió Guterres if we do not take action now.

The Madrid agenda includes agreement on i) deep cuts in global emissions by all major economies particularly China, India, the EU and others; ii) delivering on a financial commitment of $100 billion per year through the Green Climate Fund for developing countries, iii) finalising the rulebook to monitor implementation of the Paris Agreement; and iv) agreeing on the mechanism for compensation to developing countries for losses and damage beyond the scope of adaptation. This summit, like the previous four since the one in Paris in 2015, failed on all four accounts.

Pakistan’s ability to cope with climate-induced threats has further weakened in recent years.

The US decision to leave UN Compensation Commission has put additional responsibility on fast-growing economies such as China and India. Their economies have benefited immensely by making rapid transitions to renewable energies and cleaner technologies. But they do not wish to foreclose negotiating options particularly given their slowing economic growth and escalating Sino-US trade wars. The US notice period to leave the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will become effective a day after the US elections. In this waiting game, neither China nor India has committed its plans.

Countries are expected to submit their revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). They had earlier agreed on a five-yearly revision, starting from 2020 and then again in 2025. Almost 70 countries have indicated their intent to increase their ambition and reduce emissions. But the exact scale is unclear because the finances or other conditionalities are unknown.

Even if these issues are resolved, most NDCs are flawed documents and have very little practical value on the ground as climate change has not been mainstreamed and aligned with their national development priorities or budgetary allocations. This leaves most NDCs at the mercy of the unpredictable flow of global finances. The NDC revision process still does not have a compass and it’s unclear if the revised NDCs are for a 1.5C, 2C or 3C world.

The glimmer of hope comes from growing domestic activism in several Western democracies from the younger generation and middle classes for low carbon or carbon neutral development. Dozens of countries and hundreds of cities, counties, and municipalities across continents have declared a climate emergency and announced aspirations for carbon neutrality. The non-sovereign emission reduction commitments from several US states, led by California, and numerous private-sector companies, for example, are significant. According to the World Resources Institute, they represent 70 per cent of US GDP and two-thirds of the US population. If realised, together with enhanced ambition from EU, China and others it can help the transition to net carbon neutrality.

It has been pointed out that 100 companies dealing with fossil fuel have been the source of 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. There are trends now emerging to demonise, even criminalise, the fossil fuel business. There is growing pressure from the world financial institutions to not invest in new fossil fuel projects and to disinvest, where possible.

Yet, the fundamental point still awaits decisions: when will global emissions peak, and when will the actual reduction begin, at what speed, and will the world succeed in turning the trajectory downward from the present projections? No one at this stage has the answers.

According to Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Pakistan’s ability to cope with climate-induced threats has further weakened in recent years. It now is ranked as the fifth most climate vulnerable country. Our stakes are, therefore, high for the 1.5C increase, compared to any of our neighbours — China, India or Iran who are not as high on this vulnerability index.

It is not an envious position to be so vulnerable but still not have a clear roadmap for engagement with the global community. It is still possible for Pakistan to lend support to and align with the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a group of most vulnerable countries and their recently constituted Vulnerable 20 Group. These vulnerable countries are exercising moral leadership for a 1.5C world on the one hand and striving for special windows to financial flows towards them to mitigate their climate risks.

Even if many of these CVF countries are much smaller and poorer than Pakistan, they have successfully accessed concessionary windows of four climate investment funds managed by the World Bank and other multilateral development banks for the last 10 years: the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience, Clean Technology Fund, Scaling up for Renewable Energy, or Forest Investment Programme.

These windows have not only disbursed funds but have also helped these countries leverage additional resources, mainstream climate change in policy planning and enhance climate resilience. For Pakistan, climate change is a development issue, intertwined with poverty and vulnerability. We all know that for Pakistan 1.5 degree is important and all our climate negotiations need to be aligned with this strategic objective. By not engaging with these issues, Pakistan is sleepwalking to its climate future “past a point of no return” as the UN chief said.

The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.


Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2019