Climate reparations

Published September 5, 2022
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

AS the scale of flood devastation becomes apparent, the sense of climate injustice is rightfully mounting. Pakistan emits less than one per cent of global greenhouse gases (GHG), but is the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change-related disasters, a vulnerability that has been horrifyingly laid bare over the past few weeks. There is no doubt that the Global North should compensate the Global South for the fact that high-emitting activities in developed economies are fuelling catastrophic climate change-related events — current floods included — in less developed countries.

In a 2020 Lancet Planetary Health article, Jason Hickel quantifies national responsibility for the climate crisis by analysing national contributions to carbon emissions in excess of the planetary boundary of 350 parts per million atmospheric CO2 concentration. He finds that in 2015 the US was responsible for 40pc of excess emissions, the EU 29pc. The most industrialised nations collectively were responsible for 90pc of excess emissions and the Global North for 92pc. Hickel concludes that developed countries are more responsible for paying climate damages than previously acknowledged; last week he tweeted: “Pakistan is a climate creditor, and the government should issue an official call for reparations for loss and damage.”

Unfortunately, the politics are more fraught than this simple logic. Pakistan currently lacks a clear stance on reparations — or indeed a climate diplomacy strategy. Our COP26 commitments for emissions reductions were contingent on receiving climate finance, likely in the form of debt forgiveness. After the floods, we will no doubt continue to seek international support, but we will have to make a choice: embrace the climate justice argument and demand reparations or continue to opportunistically negotiate debt relief?

Reparations require targeting the highest emitters. That includes the US, with whom we are trying to repair ties, and historic allies such as the UK. China is the second-highest emitter, and is on the threshold of exceeding CO2 emissions beyond the planetary boundary as per Hickel’s calculations. There’s also the awkward matter that Gulf allies we turn to for bailouts draw their wealth from fossil fuels. A strong stance on reparations would have implications on foreign relations.

Pakistan will need a clean, green vision.

Pakistan will have to overlay climate diplomacy on its foreign policy agenda. The fact that we lack an independent, coherent foreign policy will perversely affect our ability to forge a coherent ask of developed nations in the climate context.

Pakistan will also have to recognise that it cannot have it both ways. We subscribe to the ‘catch up’ argument — the notion that developing countries should be allowed their share of pollutants and GHG emissions to build infrastructure and spur economic growth, an argument strongly pushed by emerging economies such as India and China. This reasoning envisions the West curtailing emissions and bearing the financial costs of an economic slowdown while developing countries continue to emit, build and grow. But this argument weakens when you speak the language of reparations.

Climate justice is based on the notion of not being punished for someone else’s bad behaviour, but it does not sanction additional bad behaviour. A Pakistan demanding reparations will also need a clean, green vision which includes leapfrogging the high-emitting phase of economic development into a more sustainable future. That means no more poorly planned expressways, luxury real estate development and illegal construction. Are we ready to draw this social contract?

Climate reparations arguments quickly move on to questions of governance and accountability: who will receive climate damages and how will they be dispensed? It is true that this year’s floods are not just the result of climate change, but also a consequence of poor governance and wholly inadequate disaster planning. But such argumentation is zero sum. We can ask for reparations while simultaneously recognising the need for better internal governance and disaster management. The acknowledgement of internal failings can be accounted for through a more expansive definition of reparations, which goes beyond financial support to include technical assistance and skills development needed to handle the climate challenge.

Pakistan can now either play the victim game, blaming climate change, shifting the onus to the Global North, and passively awaiting help. Or it can learn from the calamitous floods and pivot its climate narrative — and along that, its planning, foreign and security policies — to promote climate justice. We can ask for reparations, but back the demand with commitments to holistic climate mitigation and adaptation plans that ensure Pakistan’s poorest, hardest-hit citizens never have to suffer again the way they are now.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2022

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