By Mahendra P Lama
When the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was launched in 1985, a key issue in its integrated programme of action was environment and meteorology. Some significant steps were taken by the then leaders. These included the setting up of a technical committee for this specific arena of regional concern in 1987 and a Saarc Meteorological Research Centre in Dhaka in 1995. Two major regional studies involving experts and institutions were carried out for the first time in 1992. The first study, Greenhouse effect and its impact on the region recommended regional policies and projects on land and water use planning, mountain development, forestry and watershed, pollution control and hazardous wastes management, information exchange on low cost technologies and disaster warning system. The second study, the Study on the causes and consequences of natural disasters and the preservation and protection of environment also made some significant recommendations that included sharing of information and exchange of experiences on strategies on climate change impacts.
Developing a regional response
For the first time, a Common Environment Programme was adopted in the Colombo Summit in 1998 and a Plan of Action on Environment was undertaken. As a sequel, a Coastal Zone Management Centre in the Maldives and a Forestry Centre in Bhutan were also set up. A common Saarc position on climate change was also adopted in the 1997 New Delhi Declaration of Environment Ministers. This was later presented before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Special Session on the implementation of Agenda 21, the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Kyoto in 1997, and also at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. The Saarc Convention on Cooperation on Environment was also signed.
The 16th Saarc summit in Thimphu in 2010 issued a far reaching statement on climate change and collectively decided to face the dual challenge of addressing the negative impacts of climate change and pursuing socio-economic development. While noting that this region is particularly prone to climate change and related disasters, it determined to make South Asia a world leader in low-carbon technologies and renewable energy. It also decided to have a regional response to meet the challenge of climate change with the purposes and principles of regional cooperation as per its Charter.
Later it constituted an inter-governmental expert group on climate change to develop a clear policy direction and guidance for regional cooperation as envisaged in its Plan of Action on Climate Change. Promotion of the use of green technology and planting of 10 million trees over the next five years (2010-2015) as part of a regional afforestation campaign, and establishing institutional linkages among national institutions in the region to facilitate sharing of knowledge, information and capacity building and commissioning of initiative on mountain ecosystems were the core programmes.
While showing the region’s commitment to comply with the provisions of the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP), these countries avowedly declared Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). These commitments indicate their likely renegotiations with renewable energy in the near future. This is likely to trigger tangible changes in the future energy mix. By 2030, India aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions for each unit of GDP by 33 to 35 percent from 2005 levels and also aims to produce 40 percent of electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. And though Pakistan has not given any measurable targets, it is committed to reducing its emissions after reaching peak levels.
A relatively smaller mountainous country, Bhutan plans to remain carbon neutral, in keeping with its transition in 2009 and is committed to keeping 60 percent of its territory forested. Similarly, Nepal aims to reduce dependency on fossil fuels by 50 percent by 2050 and achieve 80 percent electrification through renewable energy sources with an appropriate energy mix. It plans to maintain 40 percent of the total area of the country under forest cover. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh aim for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 7 and 5 percent respectively from business-as-usual levels by 2030, or up to 23 percent and 15 percent with international support. Even Afghanistan and the Maldives have committed to 13.6 percent and 10 percent emission cuts by 2030.
In order to achieve these goals, three critical instruments required by these countries are related to finance, technology transfer and capacity building. The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan estimated that it will need to invest $40 billion from 2015 to 2030 in order to implement measures that address adverse impacts of climate change. On the other hand, India alone would require $206 billion (at 2014-15 prices) between 2015 and 2030 for implementing adaptation actions in agriculture, forestry, fisheries infrastructure, water resources and ecosystems. At the same time, NITI Aayog in India puts an estimate of $834 billion till 2030 at 2011 prices for the mitigation activities for moderately low carbon development.
Nepal, quoting the 2013 study on economic impact assessment of climate change in key sectors like agriculture, hydropower and water-induced disasters estimated the direct costs of current climate variability and extreme events to be equivalent to 1.5 to 2 percent of the current GDP/year (approximately $270-360 million/year in 2013 prices). This really does spell out the finances it requires to fulfil its commitment.
India, while making a strong case for adequate financing for the required cutting edge technologies, is asking for global collaboration in research and development, particularly in clean technologies and enabling their transfer, free of intellectual property rights costs to developing countries. Pakistan which has set up an exclusive Ministry of Climate Change, has provided a comprehensive menu of capacity building required in the crucial areas of energy, transport and agriculture.
These ambitious commitments by Saarc countries are challenging to achieve and sustain. One of the effective ways forward would be to collectively use the related platforms like that of Saarc, Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States to bargain and extract maximum aid from developed market economies. This requires an extensive exchange of information at the cross regional level, harmonisation of policies at the sectorial level and coordination of strategies at the global level. However, despite their common position, at least in the issues of environment, the Saarc member states have not shown any substantive collective headway in the last three decades. This becomes much more serious as some of the key regional institutions like the Meteorological Research Centre, the Documentation Centre in New Delhi, the Human Resources Development Centre in Islamabad, the Coastal Zone Management Centre, the Information Centre in Nepal, and the Forestry Centre have already been closed down.
The core of the Saarc model is based on two general provisions that ‘decisions at all levels shall be taken on the basis of unanimity’ and ‘bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations’. But bilateral and contentious issues have actually forestalled several Summit meetings in the past and made it a literal “political white elephant”, a “talk shop of no consequence” and a “suffocatingly slow” institution. The most recent casualty was the 19th Summit that was to be held in Islamabad in November 2016. One would expect that the impact of climate change that is going to adversely and harshly affect communities, geographies, natural resources, livelihoods, cultural ecologies and human security across the region would be able to bring the region onto a common platform. As these impacts tend not to respect the geometric lines that are called borders, why not revive and resuscitate the Saarc process once again for the larger societal good.
The Kathmandu Post, January 11, 2018