The loss of lives and destruction wrought by the climate-induced disaster in Pakistan echoed in the speeches of several world leaders at the UN General Assembly last week. US President Jo Biden urged the international community to help Pakistan while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recalled his recent visit to the country where he saw “one-third of the country submerged by a monsoon on steroids.” He also emphasised that “the country is drowning not only in floodwater, but in debt.”
In an impassioned address, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif provided a detailed account of the losses incurred by the country in the “super storm” that had changed life in Pakistan forever. He said Pakistan had “never seen a more stark and devastating example of the impact of global warming” and referred to the imposing challenge that lay ahead in the recovery and rehabilitation phase.
Like the UNSG did in his speech, Sharif sought to put the issue of justice at the center of the global debate on climate change. Pointing to the fact that the calamity had not been caused by anything Pakistan had done, he called for justice. The country was being forced to bear the consequences of actions by others given the reality that its contribution to the global greenhouse gas emissions wasn’t even 1%. Guterres went further, castigating the West’s fossil fuels industry – mainly responsible for global warming – for making windfall profits and calling for these profits to be taxed and funds from them directed to afflicted countries to deal with the damage caused to them by the climate crisis. His message at the world body was that “polluters must pay.”
As the speeches continued at the UN, young protestors took to the streets in New York and many countries including Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan to call for climate action and for rich countries to compensate poorer nations for the losses being caused by global warming. These protests represented a campaign by the youth-led international climate action movement, known as Fridays for Future, which got a fresh impetus from the climate catastrophe in Pakistan. It was the young activist Greta Thunberg who provided the inspiration for the launch of this movement a few years ago. In many of its protests there have been calls for the debt of vulnerable countries to be canceled.
The US, UK and EU reject notions of ‘climate reparations’, ‘climate justice’ or climate liability, even as they express readiness to help climate-affected low-income countries.
Attention now turns to the COP27 UN climate change conference scheduled for November at Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. This is taking place at a time when developing countries and civil society activists across the world are demanding urgent action to mitigate emissions and help countries that are least resistant to climate change. A new report ‘United in Science,’ confirms that greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high. It also finds that the past seven years were the warmest on record. This multi-agency report coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization lays bare the yawning gap between promises and practice. Another report, Climate Change 2022, says that almost half the global population is most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
Seven years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty, COP27 will offer an opportunity not just to take stock but to forge consensus on how to deliver on the commitments already made but waiting to be implemented. For example, the commitment to mobilise $100 billion a year till 2025 to help developing countries has yet to be met. The most important test of this conference will be the response to the demand of developing countries for adequate and consistent financing from richer states for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. The idea of setting up a dedicated fund for ‘loss and damages’ caused to vulnerable countries by climate change has been around for some time but there is now renewed demand for this from developing states. There has long been reluctance by developed countries to accept this. The US, UK and EU reject notions of ‘climate reparations’, ‘climate justice’ or climate liability, even as they express readiness to help climate-affected low-income countries. Some Nordic states have however voiced their support. The director of Climate Justice at Open Society, Yamide Dagnet, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “the scale of Pakistan’s floods is defining the issue of loss and damage.”
As current president of the Group of 77 and China, Pakistan will lead the latest effort by developing countries at COP27 for establishment of a ‘loss and damages’ fund to help nations afflicted by climate induced disasters. The prospect of progress on this issue at Sharm El- Sheikh is uncertain especially as in the last meeting of COP26 in Glasgow, differences between the rich and developing countries were left unresolved. Nevertheless, climate justice will be a key issue in deliberations on the ongoing planetary crisis as it has now found a firm place on the climate agenda.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha