ISLAMABAD: The parliament 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.
The 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 the Constitution.
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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".
Former government under president Asif Ali Zardari had introduced a comprehensive National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) in 2013 but it languished under the current government.
Upon coming to power in June 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also downgraded the Ministry of Climate Change to a division and slashed its budget by more than 60 per cent.
He later elevated its status back to a federal ministry ahead of the historic climate change conference in Paris in 2015.
Climate expert Qamaruz 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.
The new bill will help the provinces with adaptation and mitigation strategies and projects, he added.
"The Climate Change Act will also ensure awareness of climate policy at the highest level," he said, adding, "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.
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Under a 2010 amendment to the 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.
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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.
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.