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A divided South Asia at COP21

The delegations of South Asian countries are intensely divided on issues at COP21, here is who the countries have sent
<p>Focussing on the divided SAARC delegations at COP21 (image by Carlos García Granthon)</p>

Focussing on the divided SAARC delegations at COP21 (image by Carlos García Granthon)

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has a common programme to combat climate change, but there have been few joint initiatives under it. Reflecting this lack of cooperation, governments in South Asia have rarely even attempted to coordinate their positions at the annual climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The just-started Paris climate summit shows no promise of being an exception.

All the SAARC governments are members of the G77 and China group that does have a common negotiating position, broadly speaking. But with a combination of emerging, developing and least developed countries (LDC), the governments have found it difficult to agree on important details.

At LDC forums and in corridors, Bangladesh and Nepal have often criticized India for what they describe as a “rigid position” holding up climate agreement and therefore holding up flow of climate funds to their countries. Maldives has been the most vocal, openly criticizing India for the latter’s stance during Copenhagen negotiations, and accusing the biggest country in South Asia of indifference while a rising sea threatens the archipelago.

Despite their well-known propensity to clash at many international forums, climate negotiations is one arena where India and Pakistan have often worked together, and so have Sri Lanka and Bhutan, though in more quiet ways.

At the 2010 climate summit in the Mexican resort town of Cancun, India’s then environment minister Jairam Ramesh did make an attempt to start a SAARC negotiating bloc that would coordinate its positions. He hosted a meeting of SAARC environment ministers gathered in Cancun. But the effort was not sustained by Ramesh’s successor ministers. The effort remains on paper, but appears to be in coma.

The delegations

Given this situation, it becomes important to examine the composition of various government delegations from South Asia, since negotiators can often play key roles in making or marring agreement on specific issues. Correspondents of thethirdpole.net bring you a look at the veteran delegates.


Bangladesh has sent a 39-member delegation to Paris led by Anawar Hossain Manju, the Bangladeshi Environment and Forest minister. Before his departure, he told thethirdpole.net that Bangladesh will raise its voice for a Paris agreement that is legally binding on all nations. This goes against the position taken by India.

Delegates from Bangladesh have been at the forefront of those demanding more money for adaptation to climate change effects and to help climate refugees. It will continue to do that, though rich countries prefer more money to go into mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions rather than adaptation.

All governments have pledged to keep average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius by 2100. In partnership with Maldives, Bangladesh has been seeking to tighten that ceiling to 1.5 degrees – another issue that is anathema to India with its large coal reserves and big plans for using coal to generate electricity.

Bangladesh has sent many first-timers to the COP, but they do have four experienced non-government members to advise them – Qazi Khaliquzzaman, Ainun Nishat, Asaduzzaman and Mizan R Khan. These four people have been closely following the climate negotiation process since the 2007 Bali conference.


The Indian delegation is far more experienced. This is the second COP for Prakash Javadekar, the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change as a minister, but he has been a part of the negotiations for around 15 years as a member of the global legislators’ body for the environment (GLOBE). Other delegates are experienced in their own fields such as mitigation and forestry.

The Indian government appears to have realized that poor communications have made it lose many friends during past climate negotiations. It is making a special effort to make up lost ground. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was one of the prominent heads of government on the opening day and launched the International Solar Alliance. The Indian government has also appointed a spokesperson, Ajay Mathur, the head of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, former head of the Green Climate Fund and a veteran negotiator with friends in many delegations.


Another country whose delegates have chosen to stay quiet much of the time is Nepal. As an LDC sitting in the lap of the Himalayas – with all the problems facing its glaciers, other water sources and agriculture – Nepal could have been a leader among those demanding more money for adaptation. But for years it has chosen to follow rather than lead.

Under the leadership of Biswendra Paswan, the environment minister, Nepal is sending a team of less than a dozen to Paris. Prime Minister K.P. Oli has said he cannot go because the country is in crisis due to the blockade at the India-Nepal border.

Since the minister is new to his job, the actual negotiations will be led by Krishna Chandra Paudel, secretary in the ministry. There are some civil society members in the team and there may be more last-minute inclusions.


Pakistani environmentalists heaved a sigh of relief after Pakistan’s climate change ministry got a new minister in the form of Zahid Hamid. He has worked extensively as a lawyer fighting for green causes, and has helped draft laws on environment protection.

“I do not know Zahid Hamid personally but know enough about his contributions to Pakistan’s efforts to promote environmental protection to welcome his appointment as Minister of Climate Change,” former UN Assistant Secretary General Shafqat Kakakhel told thethirdpole.net.

But fellow green lawyer Rafay Alam pointed out that Hamid may face a challenge after Pakistan submitted an INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) with no commitment to rein in its emissions in any way. The task is all the more onerous given Pakistan’s relationship with China, which is providing support for Pakistan’s coal fired power plants.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, who heads the NGO Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan, is confident that the minister will quickly adjust to the “changed global agenda” that has moved to “climate compatible development, to low carbon development and towards resilience”. As for the rest of the delegates, most observers thought they would continue to stay quiet most of the time.

The difficulties of coordination

Many developing countries – not just in South Asia – find it difficult to finance a large delegation to climate negotiations. In the process the countries lose out, because important decision are often taken in small meeting rooms dealing with specific issues, and few developing countries have enough delegates to be present in every room.

Realising this, larger developing countries such as China and India decided nearly a decade ago to coordinate to the extent of trying to ensure at least one delegate from one country is present at every meeting. It would help a lot of SAARC governments could move to this level of coordination at the very least. But on current indications, that looks unlikely.