Afghan officials, some in hiding, hope to attend COP

By Sara Schonhardt | 08/26/2021 05:34 AM EST

Hundreds of people gathered yesterday near a checkpoint during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. AP Photo

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan scattered a team of officials who had been preparing to attend a global climate convention as extreme drought leaves the mountainous country staggering.

Now those environmental hardships have been eclipsed by the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, sending some climate officials into hiding and disrupting their plans to attend the U.N. Conference of the Parties in Scotland this November. They’re waiting anxiously to see if Taliban leaders will resurrect a federal ministry for the environment — and if they’ll be asked to continue their work.

The timing couldn’t be worse.

Afghanistan has used recent climate summits to seek financial support for weathering the effects of climate change in a nation with many of them, from flooding to drought to water scarcity. Afghan delegates have also leveraged the platform to raise awareness about climate vulnerabilities in other so-called least developed nations.

Those environmental concerns remain a priority for delegates, somehow, despite the sudden collapse of the country’s institutions and the uncertainty and fear of how the Taliban will treat officials in the former government.

“I’m 100% sure we will pass this darkness. But this COP and our climate change situation would be a really serious issue, maybe more than the current situation,” said Ahmad Samim Hoshmand, who served as the national ozone director in Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency until the takeover.

He attended the last conference of parties, or COP, in Madrid in 2019 and said he was one of several delegates selected to attend the November convention in Glasgow.

Hoshmand had been drafting a paper outlining Afghanistan’s positions on the upcoming climate negotiations when the government fell, he said.

Abdul Khalil Arman, the national focal point to the U.N. climate office at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an email that he plans to submit a list of delegates to the U.N. in the coming weeks in the hope that his team will be able to attend the conference.

But it’s unclear if that will happen. He’s waiting to see if the Taliban government will reopen the National Environmental Protection Agency. Even if that happens, the decision to send delegates to Glasgow would be in the hands of the agency’s future director general.

Whatever form the government takes, officials with aid agencies say they hope efforts to address the country’s climate challenges will continue.

“These are matters for survival,” said Necephor Mghendi, head of the delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which is helping support efforts to address the drought.

On the precipice of disaster

Afghanistan is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change.

This year’s Climate Risk Index, an analysis of how badly countries have been hit by weather-related losses, ranks Afghanistan as No. 6 overall, based on the extreme events that tore through the country in 2019. Afghanistan faced devastating floods and landslides. A severe drought a year earlier, in 2018, made coping with those disasters more difficult.

Many Afghans experience tenuous living conditions due to a combination of intensifying disasters and their reliance on climate-sensitive work, such as rain-fed agriculture or pastoralism, according to a risk brief from the Climate Security Expert Network, a hub for research on the links between climate and security.

Then there’s the drought.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said earlier this month that this year’s staple wheat crop will be down by 2 million metric tons, citing government projections. More than 3 million livestock animals are at risk of dying.

The drought stems from a potent combination of rising temperatures, declining snowpack, variable rainfall and decreases in spring rain.

These challenges are not unique to Afghanistan. But decades of conflict have deepened the wounds that disasters leave on Afghan society — and weakened the country’s ability to respond.

“Forty years of conflict in Afghanistan has increased the vulnerability of the Afghan population to all sorts of challenges, one of which is climate change,” said Oli Brown, an associate fellow with the energy, environment and resources program at London-based Chatham House and author of the risk brief. “There hasn’t been investment in water systems, there hasn’t been investment in irrigation, there hasn’t been investment in better agriculture and fertilizer access and all of those things that would increase food security.”

Despite those challenges, Afghanistan has made progress on setting up institutions for environmental management, said Andrew Scanlon, the former country program manager for the U.N. Environment Programme in Afghanistan.

In 2005, Afghanistan established the National Environmental Protection Agency, the same year then-President Hamid Karzai signed off on the country’s first environmental law. It grants formal powers to the agency to craft environmental policy, manage conservation and enforce laws.

Environmental action was happening at the local level too, Scanlon said.

“That would be things like watershed management, forestry, pollution control, well digging, clean energy — [solar] panels on roofs from schools to farms to police stations to post offices,” Scanlon said. One engineer even set up his own electric car company, he added.

Internationally, Afghanistan signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 and ratified the agreement 10 years later. It didn’t participate in international climate talks during the earlier era of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.

But it has been active in recent years, said Hoshmand.

A 22-person delegation attended the global conference in 2015 that established the Paris Agreement.

Lost amid the chaos?

Those efforts might soon hold an asterisk. They were the actions of a democratic country.

Afghanistan’s climate has already warmed by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, several tenths of a degree above the global average.

A regional fact sheet from the latest scientific assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that heat waves and heat stress will be more intense across South Asia during this century.

Droughts, floods, avalanches and landslides, glacial melt and changing patterns of rainfall and snowmelt are among the graves threats facing the country, according to climate scientists.

“If there is not attention drawn to the topic,” said Scanlon, “it might be an unnecessary casualty of the chaos.”

Even before the Taliban swept back into power, climate shocks carried the potential to overwhelm the former government. Threats include worsened poverty; a rising drug economy, since opium poppies are drought resilient; and deepening local conflicts over water, according to the risk brief.

The Taliban now also has control over vast stores of rare minerals and metals in high demand for use in clean energy development and electric vehicle batteries (Greenwire, Aug. 19).

‘Not restorable’

Afghanistan’s latest outline for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement highlights the country’s negligible contribution to global warming but also its commitment to addressing the problem. In 2015, it pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 13.6% by 2030. That goal is conditional on receiving $17.4 billion in global financing for adaptation and mitigation efforts.

“Afghanistan dearly needs international support to address its climate challenges. In addition to the international financial support, the country also needs support in capacity building as well as technology transfer,” Fahad Saeed, regional lead for South Asia and the Middle East at Climate Analytics, said in an email.

Hoshmand, the national ozone director and past climate conference delegate, has advocated for a more simplified process to access finance under the Green Climate Fund. He also suggested a new category for conflict-afflicted countries.

Since the Taliban takeover, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have suspended payments to Afghanistan.

It’s unclear how the Taliban might approach the country’s climate challenges, but Hoshmand said it’s important for Afghanistan to have a voice at the Glasgow convention.

“If we could not represent our position in the upcoming COP … there might be a very, very big problem, which might not be solvable by negotiation, might not be solvable by peace, because climate change doesn’t know a country’s state,” he said. “And it will affect so fast and it will affect very deeply. And it’s not restorable."