ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan has reinstated its ministry for climate change, suggesting the government plans to pay more attention to the issue as countries prepare a new international deal to curb global warming.
In 2013, when the same government came to power, it downgraded the ministry to a division, removing its ability to make high-level decisions.
“It was a symbolic gesture - they were sending the message that climate change was just not a priority area for them,” said Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, advisor to the United Nations Development Programme in Pakistan and author of the country’s climate change policy.
In a turnaround earlier this month, the government appointed senator Mushahid Ullah Khan as federal minister for climate change, boosting the division’s status once again.
December’s major U.N. conference in Paris, where governments are expected to seal a new agreement to tackle climate change, was a key motivation for the upgrade.
In addition, the end of last year’s anti-government protests in Pakistan freed up space for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his administration to focus on other issues like climate change.
Khan, an outspoken politician from Rawalpindi who joined the Pakistan Muslim League (N) in 1990, will take charge of the newly elevated ministry when he returns from a trip to London for medical treatment.
“We lose billions of rupees each year to floods and other calamities due to our negligence and bad governance,” he told a local newspaper before leaving.
“If the ministry improves its performance, we’ll be able to get foreign climate financing easily for different sustainable projects.”
Khan, now his party’s information secretary, said he would try to improve coordination among government departments to deal more effectively with climate change and extreme weather.
The climate change division had performed poorly without a minister at its helm for several months, Chaudhry said.
He attributed the government U-turn to efforts behind the scenes including a letter he himself wrote to the president of Pakistan, asking for the division to be upgraded to a federal ministry as a top priority.
According to Chaudhry, politicians like Health Minister Saira Afzal Tarar and National Assembly member Maryam Aurangzeb, who heads a parliamentary taskforce on the Sustainable Development Goals, also played “a vital role” in convincing the government to act.
Pakistan has not even started thinking about what to include in the offer each country is expected to put forward in advance of the Paris climate talks, including plans to curb planet-warming emissions and adapt to climate shifts, Chaudhry said.
But Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, head of environment and development group LEAD-Pakistan, urged the new ministry to respond to domestic needs, as well as participating in U.N. climate talks.
“It should work more closely with other government agencies and parliamentarians,” he said.
The musical chairs the government has played with climate change began in 2011 when the federal Ministry of Environment was devolved to the provincial authorities.
Despite fears they would be unable to deal with the complex environmental problems facing Pakistan – such as changing monsoon patterns, melting glaciers, seasonal flooding, rising sea levels and desertification – the devolution went ahead.
Responsibility for climate change was handed to the Ministry of Planning. In October 2011, four new ministries were set up to absorb departments leftover from devolution, including the Ministry of National Disaster Management.
This was renamed the Ministry of Climate Change in April 2012, elevating the issue to a cabinet-level portfolio.
Pakistan finalised its National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2012. The climate change ministry then crafted an action plan, including measures to adapt to climate change in the water sector, agriculture and mountain regions, as well as efforts to lower emissions from energy production and deforestation.
Officials attended the U.N. climate talks, and worked on projects to prevent glacial-lake flooding and protect forests.
But when the ministry was downgraded by the new government in 2013, the NCCP was put on the backburner, as the division lacked leadership with the power to make decisions.
Still, throughout all these shifts, the department remained in the same building with the same staff, Chaudhry noted.
“Now it has been elevated again to a fully fledged ministry, the government is signaling they are going to take climate change seriously,” he said.
It is unclear whether the ministry will receive extra funds, but Chaudhry said that should not be an obstacle. The new minister will need to activate the NCCP and roll it out with the help of the provinces, he added.
“The funding for the ministry is not important because (it) should only play the role of facilitator and coordinator,” he said.
The ministry itself has not yet made a statement about if and how its mandate will change.
But retired ambassador Shafqat Kakakhel, who has served on the board of the U.N.’s Clean Development Mechanism, said the ministry would be expected to manage ties with international institutions such as the fledgling Green Climate Fund.
Also its responsibilities in dealing with climate change impacts on sectors like agriculture, energy, disaster management, water and health must be clearly defined, he added.
Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan; editing by Megan Rowling