South Asian bloc active at climate meeting

By Navin Singh Khadka
Environment reporter, BBC News, Cancun, Mexico

Image caption,
Many areas in the region are considered vulnerable to climate change

Criticised for doing little for years now, a regional bloc of South Asian countries has shown signs of trying to become active at the Cancun summit.

But will it mean anything for the region that many scientists believe hosts some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change with one of the poorest populations?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established some 25 years ago, has been regarded by some commentators as a talking shop.

Politicians in the region often argued that the negotiating group G77 plus China represented the South Asian region and therefore SAARC did not have to be represented separately in such meetings.

But this time, at the 16th United Nations conference on climate change, the regional grouping applied for an observer status and got it.

Stressing cooperation

The current SAARC chair, Bhutan, is also hosting a sub-regional meeting next year to prepare a common programme to adapt to the impacts of climatic change.

Image caption,
Mr Ramesh has spearheaded cooperative efforts between countries in the region

"We know that the countries in the region live in diversity in terms of their geography, but there are commonalities when it comes to facing the impacts of climate changes," says Bhutan's agriculture minister Pema Gyamtsho, who is leading his delegation here.

"We believe we can deal with the situation better if we do it together and this regional approach is gaining some momentum now."

The major player in South Asia, India, has also been stressing regional cooperation in efforts to mitigate climate change.

Its national action plan on climate change frequently mentions a regional approach.

Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh on Monday invited his counterparts from the countries in the region for an informal meeting at the sideline of the climate conference here.

"Environment ministers from all SAARC member countries except Sri Lanka were present in the meet and it was indeed a nice beginning towards dealing with the climate change on a regional basis," said Nepalese environment minister Thakur Prasad Sharma after attending the informal meet.

Differing interests

But given its past performances, the question is whether SAARC will be able to steer the regional ship through the climate change storm.

"SAARC coming together like this is of course good in terms of sharing of climate knowledge," says Saleemul Haq, a climate expert with the International Institute for Environment and Development.

"But what role will they have in negotiations like this is not clear because the member countries (of SAARC) belong to different sub-groups that negotiate separately."

Of the eight member countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives come under the Least Developed Countries bloc while India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in the Developing Country group. Maldives is also with the Alliance of Small Island States.

The different groupings have different, sometimes even conflicting, interests in the UN climate negotiations.

Back home, SAARC these days appears in the news only during its summit when leaders of the quarrelsome nuclear rivals India and Pakistan face each other on the same stage.

While the summit has become more of a photo-op, India prefers to deal with the countries in the region bilaterally.

When the BBC asked Indian environment minister Ramesh about the meeting he had organised between SAARC ministers here, he first said, "Bilateral issues were discussed during the meet."

When asked about regional issues, the minister's answer was: "Yes, regional as well."

Experts in the region say that because multilateralism has not been promoted in the region, efforts such as, for instance, regional flood forecasting has not progressed well.

Unpredictable events

The increasing unpredictability of the monsoon and erratic rainfall patterns have made the region even more flood-prone with millions of people affected each year, mainly during rainy season.

Although India insists on bilateralism even while sharing of river-flow data for flood forecasting, officials from Bangladesh have told the BBC that the idea has not worked well because they receive the figure of the flow only from areas nearby the Indo-Bangladesh border areas.

They say that does not give them enough lead time to prepare for evacuation or other precautionary measures.

Assuming that all these will change if the latest signs of SAARC trying to be active at Cancun mean anything, there still remains an even more serious challenge: rising carbon emissions.

Once again, it will all depend on India's emission levels, which for now have been increasing.

Greenhouse gases apart, experts say, emissions from India's power plants, factories and transportation have led to the accumulation of aerosols and black soot in the skies of the Indian sub-continent.

Scientists say these particles disturb the monsoon system and exacerbate the melting of snow and ice in the Himalayas.

What's more, South Asia also borders with China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

So, even if SAARC really comes together to deal with the effects of climate change while the big players in the region and elsewhere fail to cut down their emissions, experts say it will be a zero-sum game.

If they are correct, South Asia could be fighting a losing climate battle.