IN a few days, the otherwise sleepy beach resort of Sharm El Sheikh will be buzzing with intense activity as delegates, scientists and diplomats descend upon the city to take part in this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference also known as COP27.
Though the climate conference takes place every year, there is renewed urgency regarding climate change this year as Pakistan tries to find its footing after receiving a massive battering from the worst floods this country has ever seen. Strangely, the Pakistan government’s strategy, with respect to seeking assistance for climate-related damage, appears to be overly defensive. It is possible that Pakistan’s policymakers have not fully understood the concept and history of climate justice and debt relief.
By all accounts, Pakistan’s contingent is planning on leaving a mark given the inclusion of experienced hands. At the same time, Pakistan appears to be in the driving seat, particularly since not only will it co-chair this conference along with Egypt and Norway, but is also already heading the Group of G77 and China, a coalition of 134 developing counties.
It is for this reason that it came as a surprise when, in an interview to the Financial Times, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif pinned the government’s strategy only on climate justice, while specifically dissociating the country’s official case from demanding climate reparations. The Pakistan government’s strategy is in need of a serious review.
The word ‘reparations’ comes from the Latin word ‘reparare’, meaning to restore or repair. Essentially, reparations are the payment that is given to right a wrong. In a sense, awarding reparations to victims in many instances is but an extension of the idea of justice.
When reparations are imposed on a country after a war, as in the case of Germany after both the world wars, it is because that country, like Germany, is ruled to be the aggressor. For this reason, the idea of justice and reparations cannot be dissociated from each other and thus demanding climate reparations must be part of Pakistan’s strategy for COP27.
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Climate and attribution science draw a straight line between burning fossil fuels and climate change. The nations of the Global North bear direct responsibility for climate change as they have added 92 per cent of the excess emissions. What this means is that these nations must be held accountable for their actions, especially since these nations have accumulated much wealth by burning fossil fuels, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. It is needless to mention that all this wealth has been created at the expense of climate catastrophes now being faced by the Global South.
The UN specifically advised Pakistan to negotiate debt relief with its creditors in order to ‘stem the climate-change-fuelled crisis’.
Still, the nations of the Global North are not pushed about paying any reparations as some Global North leaders either completely deny climate change or feel that they do not owe anything to the Global South.
Given this antipathy towards climate reparations, some pro-government analysts in Pakistan have recently argued that since Pakistan is not going to get any reparations it is best to not speak about them.
Holding such a position is extremely problematic as it is tantamount to giving all aggressors a free pass if they refuse to compensate the victims of injustice. Even though no reparations have ever been paid to Black descendants of US slavery, it has not stopped scholars from vociferously demanding them. William ‘Sandy’ Darity, an economist at Duke University, has argued for a baseline amount of $10 trillion to $12tr as reparations for US slavery. What this indicates is that not asking for reparations because they might not be given is not a convincing rationale for leaving climate reparations out of Pakistan’s strategy at COP27.
More evidence of the Pakistan government’s overly defensive strategy for COP27 was on display in the same interview. The prime minister pointed out that his government was not asking for any rescheduling or even for a moratorium on interest payments when it comes to Pakistan’s substantial external debt that is now worth about $130 billion. Instead of asking for debt relief, the government has decided to ask for “huge sums of money” or even more loans.
This official capitulation in front of the international community is all the more alarming as various international leaders like UN Secretary General António Guterres have urged international creditors to consider debt reduction mechanisms for Pakistan. At the same time, a UN policy memorandum had specifically advised Pakistan to negotiate debt relief with its creditors in order to “stem the climate-change-fuelled crisis”.
The Pakistan government’s reluctance to ask for debt relief is perplexing. There is a long tradition of countries’ getting their debts written off. In 1953, Western Allied powers approved the London Debt Agreement, which subsequently eliminated 50pc of Germany’s external debt and provided generous repayment options on the remainder, thereby creating fiscal space for public investment, lowering costs of borrowing and stabilising inflation.
Ironically, Pakistan, whose government today is afraid of ruffling feathers by asking for debt relief, was one of the 20 creditors that wrote off Germany’s debt in London that year.
What the preceding analysis shows is that the Pakistan government, despite all the sound and fury, has not done its homework when it comes to preparing a sound strategy for COP27. Though Pakistan chairs important international forums right now, the government appears confused about asking for climate reparations even when the very idea of climate justice cannot be dissociated from climate reparations.
The government also appears to be on the verge of squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ask for comprehensive debt relief, without which it would be all but impossible to create the necessary fiscal space for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction operations. Given Pakistan is likely to face more climate catastrophes in the future, this may be a good time to carry out a trenchant critique of this overly defensive strategy.
The writer completed his doctorate in economics on a Fulbright scholarship.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022