COP28: Pakistan’s narrative ( Part - I)

Zeeshan Salahuddin
Saturday, Nov 11, 2023

The boilerplate is reductive but straightforward. One, Pakistan is one of the most affected countries by climate change. Two, climate change is not a problem created by (or contributed to) Pakistan. Three, Pakistan is a developing country with limited resources and funding. Four, the international community needs to help Pakistan overcome the gargantuan challenge of climate finance.

Pakistan has maintained this narrative at every international forum. Statistics like “Pakistan contributes to less than one percent of global emissions”, and “floods in 2022 cause 30 billion dollars of damage” are often leveraged to make this case, and the principal negotiators, despite having substantially differing positions in their personal capacities, reinforce the state’s narrative.

Objectively, there is nothing fundamentally incorrect about the state narrative on climate change. In its distilled, rehearsed form, it is factual and compelling. However, it is also deeply problematic, and it creates more problems than it solves, and arguably, it solves almost nothing.

Let us break it down point-by-point.

First, Pakistan is indeed one of the most affected countries. It is often stated that Pakistan ranks eight globally, but after the floods that wreaked havoc across the country in 2022, the World Food Program (WFP) ranked Pakistan as the third most affected country. The floods destroyed 1.2 million acres of arable land at a time when Pakistan was already importing nearly $8 billion worth of food to meet its citizens’ needs. These floods would inevitably affect food security in the country and put pressure on an already stressed system.

There is quite a bit of nuance here; for example, the fact that the floods are also resulting in a dramatic increase in bonded labour across Pakistan, and the fact that if we were to make efficiency-focused adjustments along the agricultural value chain, Pakistan would no longer need to import any food, thus mitigating food insecurity as a consideration when it comes to climate risk calculations.

Second, climate change is certainly not a problem created by Pakistan. GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emissions are a result of the rapid industrialization over the last century by developed nations (sometimes reductively clubbed together as the ‘Global North’), and Pakistan has only recently started contributing significantly to this number, and that contribution still remains below the one per cent threshold. It is also true that if Pakistan were to stop all emissions today, and magically achieve Net Zero, it would make no change to the 1.5-degree world.

However, there are at least two problems with this narrative. Mathematically, 1% of a really large number is also a really large number, and since Pakistan has committed to a 50% reduction (conditionally) in emissions, there is a clear and present need to work towards zero emissions. Additionally, three of the ten smoggiest cities in the world are in Pakistan, with Lahore topping the list. This cancerous air quality has a direct bearing on citizen’s health, the additional stress on the healthcare system due to a sharp spike in pulmonary diseases, and life expectancy.

Third, Pakistan certainly has limited resources, and very few means (at present) to generate additional income. Pakistan has gone through one of the worst economic downturns in the history of the country. The combined external and domestic debt is soaring at $215 billion, which accounts for 73 per cent of the GDP. The reason for this is Pakistan’s perennial inability to (internally) rationalize its income (tax and non-tax) with its expenses, and (externally) its net flow of dollars, resulting in a perpetual current account deficit (CAD). However, missing from the narrative is the fact that Pakistan can dramatically improve its revenue collection by taxing two major sectors that not only have a heavy carbon footprint but have historically been given leeway by the elites to park their money: agriculture and real estate.

The key insight here is that Pakistan will have to solve a large portion of its short to medium-term climate financing needs through internal adjustments, a key component of which is upscaled revenue generation and the dismantling of elite capture.

Fourth, the international community should absolutely help Pakistan meet its climate financing needs both through grants and green debt swaps (among other instruments). However, these are long-term gains and are unlikely to have any significant bearing on Pakistan’s climate change crisis. International climate financing instruments in the past, like the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have not resulted in significant investments in Pakistan (admittedly a major reason being internal and institutional capacity).

The Loss and Damage Fund (L&D) established at COP27 is unlikely to bring any meaningful climate financing to Pakistan in the short to medium term, and there are indicators that it may be torpedoed at COP28, with the US insisting that no commitments to the L&D be binding. This underlines the key takeaway from the third point above, that Pakistan needs to look elsewhere, most importantly internally to solve many of its climate change issues.

Part II of this series will look at what Pakistan can do to revamp its narrative and portray itself as a responsible member of the international community.

To be continued

The writer is director for growth and strategy at Tabadlab Pakistan. He tweets @zeesalahuddin, and can be reached at: