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Pakistan’s new climate change ministry merely “cosmetic”

Pakistan has elevated the climate change division to a ministry but opinion is divided on whether it will translate into effective policy making or remain a merely cosmetic initiative
<p>Since 2010, Pakistan has experienced unprecedented disasters and climate extremes, resulting in economic losses of over US$6 billion (Image by DVIDSHUB)</p>

Since 2010, Pakistan has experienced unprecedented disasters and climate extremes, resulting in economic losses of over US$6 billion (Image by DVIDSHUB)

The Pakistan government’s decision to upgrade its climate change division to the status of a ministry has experts divided down the middle with some welcoming it and others sceptical on whether it will prove to be effective in formulating policy.

The federal government upped the status of the division to a ministry through a notification on January 8 and appointed Mushahid Ullah Khan as minister.

This is a “promising sign” ahead of the UN climate talks in Paris later this year, said Hina Lotia, programme manager at NGO LEAD Pakistan.

“It will show our seriousness as a country that has been impacted by major climate related disasters in the last five years,” she explained.

The present Nawaz Sharif-led government has been a strong advocate for renewable on the one hand and, on the other, taken on various development projects like the mass transit project, several hydropower dams and setting up of solar parks, Lotia added. “With the climate change division having been elevated to a ministry, it is hoped it will facilitate development policies to ensure these projects are climate resilient and leave a small carbon footprint.”

Dr Ejaz Ahmad, senior director at WWF Pakistan, too, believes it is “better and efficient” to have a full-fledged ministry with some international conventions and commitments needing “timely” decision making.

Pakistan, he said, had been playing a critical role in climate negotiations and had been recognised at various forums. “Unfortunately, the same kind of recognition was lacking at the national level,” he rued. “Environment and related issues are not a priority of the government and environmental laws are not implemented.”  Issues like deforestation, wildlife trade, deterioration of water quality and national environmental standards, he added, were not being managed through long term strategies.

Naseer Memon, head of Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) agrees: “Creating ministries and departments can only make a difference when something is on the priority agenda; environment and climate change are not even at the bottom of priorities,” he said. “Understandably the government has several other challenges to face, yet climate change is one of the most serious…but sadly our governments keep focusing on symptoms rather than addressing the core issues,” explained Memon who has authored several books on climate change.

Bureaucratic stratagems

But there are others sceptical of this ‘on-and-off’ ministry of climate change. Three years ago in April 2012, the ministry of national disaster management was renamed the ministry of climate change. In July 2013, two months after coming to power, the Pakistan Muslim League-N government demoted it to a division. Now, not too long after, the same government has upgraded it again.

“In Pakistan, ministries often come about not so much because they are needed but to accommodate large cabinets and a burgeoning bureaucracy,” said Abid Qayyum Suleri, head of Islamabad-based think tank SDPI.

After the passage of the 18th amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in 2010 by the previous parliament, issues such as environment, religious affairs, food and agriculture were delegated to the provinces, he explained. However, the total number of ministries at the centre remained almost the same as many of these issues were renamed to retain the cabinet members. Hence, the ministry of environment became the ministry of climate change, whereas the ministry of food, agriculture and livestock was renamed ministry of national food security and research – thereby creating confusion between the centre and the provinces on their respective mandates.

Cosmetic move

When the climate change ministry became a division, its development budget was also slashed by more than 60% as part of a wider cost-cutting strategy.

And that is why environment lawyer and activist Rafay Alam  finds the government’s latest move merely “cosmetic”.

“I say this because the announcement to revert back to a ministry is not accompanied with any new projects or budget allocation. The climate change division has had its budget cut over the last two years as part of the government’s ‘austerity’ drive. Currently, the budget for the climate ministry is less than the cost of a Toyota Hilux!” Alam told thethirdpole.net.

He would have been more confident, he said, had the central government approved funding projects, at the division or the ministry, matching the scale of challenges Pakistan faces due to climate change.

The government allocated a total of Rs.58.8 million (US$586,000) to combat climate change compared to Rs.135 million (US$1.3 million) in 2012-13. This was strongly criticised by climate scientists and those working on climate related issues.

Nevertheless, the recent decision to reinstate the ministry and have a minister, said SDPI’s Suleri, will lend some “political patronage” to the employees of this ministry. The appointment of a minister may also help it get the issues of climate change voiced in the cabinet, he added.

However, he remained wary of the possibility that climate change may be tackled in the usual  “fire-fighting mode” that successive governments have been known to adopt on most issues.

Now that the ministry has been set, Alam said he would like to see it undertaking adaptation projects, coordinate with the provinces and support them in the formulation of provincial climate policies. “Initiatives like these require leadership and money. The ministry now has a minister; what is really needed is political commitment to allocate funds for such climate adaptation and policy projects that matches the scale of Pakistan’s climate challenges.”

Road ahead

The minister should without wasting any time get on with business of preparing for the COP, added Suleri. “He will have to work closely with the foreign office and the Planning Commission on the one hand and the provinces on the other.”

Suleri, who is a member of the Planning Commission’s Economic Advisory Council, said the ministry should work in tandem with the council, which is working on a long-term vision 2025 document.

Most multilateral environmental agreements in the past were led by the foreign office, which had a good grip of the various climate-related issues vis-a-vis Pakistan. “They present them effectively at these global forums,” he explained.

At the same time, the ministry will have to coordinate with the provinces to implement sustainable development goals, getting feedback about what their expectations are from the COP and what local solutions they can offer that can be presented in Paris.

By highlighting the vulnerabilities and needs to strengthen adaptation at the local level, the SDPI head said, Pakistan can pursue opportunities offered, especially climate financing opportunities, which will emerge after the Paris COP.

Comments (2)

I tend to agree with Abid and Rafay that without building technical capacity of the ministry and allocating adequate resources, it would remain a cosmetic move. Being a Division or Ministry is not important (EAD is more powerful than many ministries); the real issue is who runs the affairs – non-technical bureaucrats in most cases. That has been the dilemma with this ministry from its days of MoE. Unfortunately, over the years the technical capacity of the ministry has deteriorated badly. So without necessary organizational restructuring and resource allocation, it would remain a business as usual.

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