Pakistan passes climate change act, experts remain sceptical

Experts warn the new climate bill needs to be backed up by strong government support and funding for adaptation projects on the ground, rather than used simply as a means to attract international funds
<p>Pakistan is one of the world&#8217;s countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change [image by Asian Development Bank]</p>

Pakistan is one of the world’s countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change [image by Asian Development Bank]

The Pakistan senate’s approval of the Climate Change Act on March 17 was warmly welcomed by many as a step in the right direction for a country that is battling the growing threat of climate-related disasters.

The bill, authored by senator Zahid Hamid who heads the climate change ministry, was passed to ensure the country meets its obligations under international conventions relating to climate change and address its effects. Though ranked 153rd in terms of greenhouse gas emitting countries, Hamid told the senate it was the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change. The bill had already been approved by the National Assembly.

With this new law, Pakistan has joined the ranks of a handful of countries that have passed legislation to specifically tackle the impact of climate change, said Michal Nachmany who has been leading a global review of climate legislation at the Grantham Institute. As of 2017 there were over 400 laws relevant to climate change and energy, according to the institute’s review of 99 countries. However, there are just a few countries like Finland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Kenya, Australia, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Micronesia and the Philippines that have passed climate change acts.

Syed Abu Ahmad Akif, secretary of the ministry of climate change, said it was “remarkable” for Pakistan to have a dedicated national institution specifically to combat climate change. But other experts are more sceptical that the act will make a real impact.

“The bill seems to have covered many bases,” said Fahad Saeed, scientific advisor with Berlin-based Climate Analytics, but not much good can come of it without the “fire power” needed to implement the policies.

That fire power, said Malik Amin Aslam, global vice president of IUCN, was the political will at the government level and adequate funds. Unless there was strong political will and implementation measures, just hammering out a bill was a mere “exercise on paper” said Aslam.

“This present bill is useful in that it provides a legislative shape to Pakistan’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) [the actions the country has pledged and submitted under the UNFCC to keep global emissions below the 2°C warming threshold] and sets up a high level decision making body, but it now adds another layer to the piles of policies, strategies and bodies we have already stacked up over the years of living dangerously with the climate threat,” Aslam told   The new law established three important institutions, the Pakistan Climate Change Council, the Pakistan Climate Change Authority and the Pakistan Climate Change Fund.

The government would do better to channel money and support directly to provinces who are already implementing climate adaptation projects on the ground, said Aslam, who also heads the Green Growth Initiative of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the most vulnerable province in Pakistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has taken some concrete steps on climate change in the past three years and is an example of what can be achieved at the local level.  The province has built over 200 micro-hydropower projects (with 150 more planned for completion by the end of this year); increased forest cover by 2% (from 20 % in 2013 to 22% in 2016) and the provincial fund for climate adaptive forestry went up 700% from Rs 300 million [USD 2.86]  in 2013 to Rs 2 billion [19 million] in 2016.

Confusion of power

The new act may also create some confusion of powers between the provinces and the centre, said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, head of LEAD Pakistan, a think tank focusing on climate and water issues. “Unless carefully worked out, the risk is that it may take away some autonomy enjoyed by the provinces after the 18th constitutional amendment [which transferred power from the president to parliament and the provinces],” he told

Constitutionally, climate change falls under the purview of provinces, agreed Akif. “But climate change was too important a subject to be left to the provinces and municipalities. It is now up to the scientists, researches and politicians to let it swim or sink,” he said.

Lack of research

Saeed felt no bill can work unless it is backed by right information, vision and authority to implement it.  Pakistani scientists, he said, hardly produced anything of substantial quality in international research journals. “We prefer to present our results to the media rather than getting it vetted by international researchers through high quality publications in international journals. I have come across many studies, exclusively carried out on Pakistan from a climate change perspective, having no (or hardly one) author from Pakistani institute, which depicts a very sorry state of affairs,” Saeed lamented.

Giving the example of Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC), the ministry’s research wing and the only dedicated institute carrying out scientific research on climate change, he said the centre was supposed to strengthen the scientific research input of the country, but has been unable to even fill up its vacant permanent lead positions for the last three to four years.

Funnelling donor funds

The new Pakistan Climate Change Council will be chaired by the prime minister said Akif and other “high powered” members would be all the chief ministers who would act as regional heads. In addition, it will include the four provincial ministers of environment and 20 members of the council representing the academia, people from the commerce and industry and science.

One the one hand the council will give directions to the climate change ministry and, on the other, impress upon the world the significance Pakistan attached to climate change, said Akif.

“My fear is that the motivation behind this bill’s passage is simply to access donor dollars from the huge Green Climate Fund and other sources,” said Saleem H. Ali, professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware.

Hamid recently made a speech explaining the act would not just tackle the pressing “climate risks” but “secure global funding” to implement projects to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people, especially farmers.

But even if the purpose is to harness the funds to be able to start adaptation projects, “how those funds are used efficiently will be the key test,” said Ali.

Sheikh, also the Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), questioned if the Climate Change Authority to be set up by the Climate Change Council was going to work in parallel to the already existing climate change ministry, or undermine its authority. But Akif emphasised the authority was more an “implementation arm” of the ministry which would be dealing with legislation and global linkages.

And if the authority is just to be the implementation arm, then it should focus on “tangible legislative action internally to address climate change vulnerabilities rather than getting on the gravy train for funds,” said Ali. For example, ensuring building codes for more energy efficient housing and commercial real estate, or zoning to protect habitation in highly vulnerable flood zones or coastal areas etc.