By Rina Saeed Khan
ISLAMABAD, March 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan's parliament has passed a climate change bill that officials promise "will fast-track measures needed to implement actions on the ground" in a country that has so far lagged on climate action.
The new law establishes a policy-making Climate Change Council, along with a Climate Change Authority to prepare and supervise the implementation of projects to help Pakistan adapt to climate impacts and hold the line on climate-changing emissions.
The legislation has received cautious backing from climate change experts, who say they welcome its potential but question whether the government should instead be offering more direct support to provinces to implement environmental projects.
Pakistan has earlier passed measures to address climate change, but most have been little implemented, critics charge.
Pakistan's Senate passed the Climate Change Act 2016 this month, following the bill's passage in the National Assembly in December. The legislation is expected to be approved by the President in the coming weeks, a requirement under Pakistan's constitution.
Pakistan's federal minister for climate change, Zahid Hamid, called the legislation "historic" and said it would "fast-track measures needed to implement actions on the ground."
Pakistan's former government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, introduced a comprehensive National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2013, but it languished under the successor government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Upon coming to power in June 2013, Sharif's government also downgraded the Ministry of Climate Change to a division and slashed its budget by more than 60 percent. He later elevated its status back to a federal ministry ahead of the historic climate change conference in Paris in 2015.
Climate expert Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, who was the lead author of the NCCP, credits the climate change minister, who also helped draft a national environmental protection act 20 years ago, with pushing ahead the current legislation.
Chaudhry said the new bill will help the provinces with adaptation and mitigation strategies and projects.
"The Climate Change Act will also ensure awareness of climate policy at the highest level," he said. "The (climate change) council will hopefully expedite action, and the implementation of climate projects will pick up."
FLOODS TO RISING HEAT
Hamid said that Pakistan today faces major climate-related risks, including glacial melt, variable monsoons, recurrent floods, sea intrusion, higher average temperatures and greater frequency of droughts.
Millions of people across the country have been affected, and major damage has been caused by recurring natural disasters.
Under a 2010 amendment to Pakistan's constitution, handling of environment, food and agriculture issues was largely delegated to the provinces.
But "climate change is multi-dimensional in nature and no one province can handle it. We need a federal body to do the necessary coordination among the provinces and to access the available global climate finance," Hamid said.
The new law establishes a Pakistan Climate Change Council, Pakistan Climate Change Authority and Pakistan Climate Change Fund.
The council will be a decision-making body chaired by either the prime minister or a person nominated by him. The government will appoint federal and provincial ministers, chief ministers and chief secretaries as members of the council.
Other members of the body, which will total around 30 people, will be scientists and researchers, representatives of business and industry, and experts from non-governmental organisations concerned with climate change.
The Climate Change Authority will be an autonomous government department, housed in Islamabad and led by scientists, academics, industrialists, agriculturalists and serving and retired government servants, with a chairperson appointed by the prime minister.
It will formulate adaptation and mitigation policies and projects designed to meet Pakistan's obligations under international climate accords like the recent Paris Agreement.
Projects are to be implemented by the provinces. The Climate Change Fund will support adaptation and mitigation schemes, and other measures including research.
ENFORCEMENT THIS TIME?
Hammad Naqi Khan, director-general of WWF-Pakistan, one of the country's oldest environmental NGOs, questioned whether the new bodies would have regulatory teeth.
"While I appreciate the fact that we now have new legislation in place to address issues related to climate change, the fact remains that we have policies for everything but where is the enforcement?" he asked.
He pointed out the earlier example of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Council, set up under the 1997 Environmental Protection Act.
The council was headed by the prime minister and required under the law to meet at least twice a year, but it rarely did so, while environmental protection agencies were widely regarded as toothless and unable to enforce the law.
"This new council and authority are all good things on paper, but we will only see their benefits when they materialise," Khan said.
"I would like to see things on the ground – how they link this legislation to a water policy, to food security, to the energy policy and large infrastructure projects. Otherwise it is just cosmetic, a wish-list based on past experience," he said.
Ejaz Ahmad, an environmentalist who recently retired from WWF-Pakistan, argued that the government needs to support the provinces in implementing climate change policy, rather than creating new federal bodies.
"I don't understand the need to add another layer of responsibilities to those who don't have the capacity to deliver. Perhaps it would have been better to strengthen existing policies and fill the gaps," he said.
According to Ahmad, Sindh province's Environment Protection Agency, which was established under the 1997 Environmental Protection Act, has fewer than a dozen officers, who lack the capacity and resources to inspect industries being developed in Karachi.
Chaudhry, the lead author of the NCCP, agreed there has been little action on the ground due to capacity gaps at the provincial level.
But he believes that the new law will facilitate implementation of climate policy.
"Only time will tell if the new legislation bears real outcome. Let's see how it proceeds," he said.
(Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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