Pakistan Leads Charge for Climate Justice at COP27

The have-nots need lots of cash to tackle climate change. Can they be trusted with it?

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif delivers a speech at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 8.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif delivers a speech at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 8.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif delivers a speech at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 8. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

Pakistan, which has been battered by climate catastrophes for the past decade, is leading the call for rich nations to compensate poor countries for a crisis they did not cause. But concerns abound over where that money will go in places that often pair poverty with corruption.

Pakistan is responsible for less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions but is among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. This summer’s monsoon rains and floods inundated one-third of the country, destroying farmland, displacing millions of people, and killing nearly 2,000. Economic losses have been estimated at up to $40 billion.

Pakistan is a “victim of something with which we had nothing to do … a man-made disaster,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told delegates at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week. As a vice chair of COP27, he’s pressing the case for a “loss and damage” financial mechanism that would oblige developed countries to help “victim” countries pay for the impact of climate change and to prevent energy-poor countries from becoming part of the problem by transitioning to cleaner sources of energy.

Pakistan, which has been battered by climate catastrophes for the past decade, is leading the call for rich nations to compensate poor countries for a crisis they did not cause. But concerns abound over where that money will go in places that often pair poverty with corruption.

Pakistan is responsible for less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions but is among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. This summer’s monsoon rains and floods inundated one-third of the country, destroying farmland, displacing millions of people, and killing nearly 2,000. Economic losses have been estimated at up to $40 billion.

Pakistan is a “victim of something with which we had nothing to do … a man-made disaster,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told delegates at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this week. As a vice chair of COP27, he’s pressing the case for a “loss and damage” financial mechanism that would oblige developed countries to help “victim” countries pay for the impact of climate change and to prevent energy-poor countries from becoming part of the problem by transitioning to cleaner sources of energy.

The idea of rich countries helping to cover less developed countries’ costs of coping with climate change has been around in force since at least COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, effectively dividing the world between the haves and the have-nots. But for Pakistan, this year’s carnage wasn’t its first rodeo: It also suffered devastating floods in 2010, which caused similar amounts of damage and loss of life. The fact that it keeps happening has drawn attention to Pakistan’s climate vulnerability—but also raises questions about its chaotic political culture and corruption and whether mitigation funds would be spent wisely, if at all.

The problem is twofold. Climate finance is meant to help prepare countries to adapt to coming climate shocks and to take steps to mitigate their own emissions. Pakistan, like many developing countries, was unwilling or unable to make the necessary investments in upgrading infrastructure, protecting crop land, and diversifying energy supplies and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Given Pakistan’s decade of discontent and lack of preparation, any compensation would likely need to be spent repairing damage done, rather than future-proofing for damage yet to come—which would just leave another big bill due when the next superflood inevitably hits.

And then there’s the question of whether Pakistan can be trusted to use any climate compensation in a transparent and productive manner. Pakistan ranks 140 out of 180 countries rated for corruption by Transparency International. Allegations of theft and diversion of international aid arise often; the U.S. State Department said last month that it was taking “very seriously” reports that less than a quarter of $160 million pledged to flood relief efforts, including $66.5 million from the United States, had reached intended recipients. The Pakistani military, a power unto itself, controls about 12 percent of the country’s land. It is not, from the perspective of Western financiers or do-gooders, a promising place to throw money at.

“Rich countries are reluctant enough to invest in Pakistan’s energy transition, which at least offers the prospect of returns, however meager and uncertain. They’re still less likely to donate the grant funds necessary to insulate one of the world’s poorest countries against the impact of rising global temperatures,” Bloomberg columnist David Fickling wrote recently.

Some who are closer to the rising water line beg to differ, saying that skepticism and low trust can be ameliorated as they would be in any financial transaction. Journalist and climate activist Afia Salam said due diligence and stringent monitoring are key to overcoming any trust issues about the disbursement of funds.

“Political instability cannot stop the track of recovery and development. Most fund disbursement is tied to milestones and transparency mechanisms. Joint oversight can pretty much take care of such fear,” she said. Given the nature of climate change’s impact, access to funding will have to be immediate—but the fundamental questions of where it will be based, how and to whom it will be distributed, and under what conditions have yet to be worked out, let alone the big issue of where the money will come from in the first place.

At COP27, the question of how richer countries can help underwrite the climate challenges of poorer countries has dominated much of the first week. As always, the debate has centered on the details of distributing any aid money, concerns about corruption, and the question of financing short-term fixes versus longer-term investments in mitigation and adaptation measures. A report prepared for the latest summit suggests that developing countries, not including China, will need about $1 trillion a year of outside climate financing.

Still, just having put loss and damage onto the climate agenda in Egypt is a “huge achievement” for Pakistan, said Abid Qaiyum Suleri, the executive director of the independent Sustainable Development Policy Institute, based in Islamabad. That doesn’t mean he’s optimistic the talk will lead to anything concrete just yet.

“All over the world climate change is causing loss and damage—floods in Pakistan and the Philippines, the heat wave in Britain, cyclones in Florida. The discussion is needed, and I’m hopeful that a mechanism will emerge from these discussions—though we will not see it implemented immediately,” he said, as the journey from concept to global consensus on action can be long and tortuous.

Suleri acknowledged that Pakistan is plagued by double-digit inflation, a balance of payments crisis exacerbated by the rising cost of imported fossil fuels, and low economic growth. But climate change is being imposed on Pakistan, he told Foreign Policy from Sharm el-Sheikh.

“Let’s not dilute the case of bad management and governance. There is a lot that needs to be corrected. But it should not be used as an excuse not to support Pakistan and other developing countries that are being impacted.”

As Pakistan nears winter, he said, some 8 million people who lost their homes in the summer floods—with seven to eight times the usual monsoon rain, much of it dumped on arid Baluchistan and Sindh—remain in temporary shelters. One million pregnant women need medical care, and millions of children are going without vaccinations, including for polio, which remains endemic in Pakistan.

“The government should be held accountable by the international community, and money for flood relief needs to be transparently spent, so each penny can be accounted for,” Suleri said. “But it should not be used as a delaying tactic for supporting people in need. These failures need to be kept separate. We are asking for climate justice.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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