Leveraging climate capability

Published April 24, 2021
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

ON April 22, world leaders from 40 countries, 17 of them responsible for four-fifths of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, held a virtual summit convened by President Joe Biden. This summit, explicitly designed to make up for the time lost by America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, will help the administration relaunch the US in the global climate arena, and align global climate policy with his domestic economic agenda. The ultimate goal is to have a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, starting with a 50pc reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

The Biden administration has unfolded its four-track climate strategy: 1) the biggest-ever plan for investment in American infrastructure to make it climate smart; 2) create jobs as a byproduct of climate action (70 million Americans are out of a job because of Covid-19’s impact); 3) phasing out coal by propelling renewable energy (RE) and Electric Vehicles (EVs) infrastructure, including making solar, wind and hydro-energy the backbone of the US economy; and 4) win back leadership in green technologies from China, EU and others.

The summit will help generate support for these actions by linking domestic economy to the global climate agenda and create a global momentum for climate action before the climate change conference (COP 26) in November 2021.

Even if it was not invited, this summit was extremely important for Pakistan.

Pakistan was not invited to the summit. Thankfully, Malik Amin Aslam, our dynamic climate change adviser, was invited to the session on adaptation. But regional states Bangladesh, China and India, in addition to Saudi Arabia from the Arab world, were invited. What do they bring to the table that Pakistan does not?

Bangladesh is presently heading a 48-nation grouping called the Climate Vulnerability Forum. Put together, they have a population of 1.2 billion and contribute 5pc of global CO2 emissions. Since CVF involves some of the most vulnerable countries, they have taken a position to stabilise global temperature rise at 1.5C and each member is committed to net-zero emissions economies before mid-century. No wonder they wield tremendous moral authority and enjoy support for many pioneering initiatives. And, this has been CVF’s biggest weapon in global climate negotiations.

While Bangladesh and Pakistan are low-level emitters, China and India are the world’s highest and third highest carbon emitters respectively. Both countries have taken impressive strides in wind and solar energy, and have become the largest producers and users of these technologies. But both China and India are still addicted to coal power and wish to buy more time to phase out the fuel. China continues to be the biggest financier and user of fossil fuels as well as RE. Any international process must engage both countries for a global consensus on the roadmap. Climate action has not become a mainstream domestic political agenda in India, unlike as in the US. China is presently leading in several technologies particularly EVs, energy storage, domestic carbon trading and carbon bonds, in addition to ecosystem-based approaches for carbon sequestration.

The American effort is to regain some of the space it has lost by augmenting trade with India, particularly as the latter aspires to become a trade and investment destination and seeks $170bn every year for its climate targets up to 2030. The three countries will have plenty to share and demand from each other in trade, technology and investments without always pointing fingers at one another. US climate envoy John Kerry’s recent visits to China and India have already defined the contours of their future climate relations.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has obstructed, even blocked, international climate negotiations for decades to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry. By inviting Saudi Arabia, the administration has taken the fault lines of American domestic politics to the Middle East. A transition to RE will deeply cut the world demand for fossil fuels and therefore it becomes imperative to engage with the oil-producing world. The administration is taking the battle for American interest groups to the heart of the Middle East. While the tectonic plates have shifted elsewhere, the agenda with Pakistan continues to centre on cleaning up the mess created by 9/11.

Even if it was not invited, this summit was extremely important for Pakistan, particularly since it will co-host World Environment Day in June this year. Pakistan will need to take three specific actions to draw greater attention.

First, fill the ambition gap: Pakistan needs to align with global forces that seek rapid climate actions. Pakistan should therefore formally support 1) global temperature stabilising at 1.5C and not at 2C, 2) carbon neutrality by mid-century and near zero-emissions by 2030, and 3) phasing out coal power plants. A clear decision is essential, as is its communication of this national ambition to the world through Nationally Determined Contributions and the National Climate Change Policy, both presently under revision.

Second, fill the credibility gap: Pakistan’s announcements need to be fully credible, backed by roadmaps and measured actions. Fantastic declarations will lack in credibility unless supported by financial allocations and verifiable periodic reporting and disclosures. Historically, Pakistan’s performance and data gaps have been bigger challenges to credibility than its research and scientific capacity gaps. Given frequent errors in our data and reporting, deliberate or otherwise, third-party validation will help overcome the perception gap. Elimination of lingering doubts will help lessen suspicions and unnecessary international isolation.

Third, demonstrate clarity of purpose. For the world to engage with Pakistan in the global climate arena, Pakistan will need to show commitment to climate-smart development planning that i) leads to decarbonistion of the economy and increasing competitiveness through RE and affordable energy, ii) integrates resilience across physical and human capital, and iii) strengthens macro-fiscal sustainability to protect against climate-induced shocks that might affect the economy. There is no better recipe for Pakistan to be part of the international climate change discourse than to have its own success stories, emerging from these actions, which it can share with the world.

The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2021

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