pakistan climate diplomacy

Written by Aimen Ayaz 10:47 am Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Climate Diplomacy: The Pakistan Chapter

Climate diplomacy will propel Pakistan out of its procrastination, equipping it with viable stratagems that would advance environmental stability.
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Aimen Ayaz is an International Relations graduate from Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. She is an avid reader and a believer in the advocacy of human rights. She also practices environmentalism and hopes to contribute to the creation of a safer world for children, women, the planet, and perspectives too.

‘To see the 21st century truly, one’s eyes must learn a different set of aesthetics….’ – Robert D. Kaplan

Back in 1994 when the Cold War had just ended and the United States was still drunk in its unipolar moment, Robert D. Kaplan made a remarkable publication in the Atlantic by the name of “The Coming Anarchy”.1 In it, he presented outstanding research on how the 21st century was going to present security challenges not because of nuclear weapons but because of overpopulation, resource scarcity, and diseases, which would eventuate because of the continuous degradation of the environment.

Kaplan’s environmentalist approach to politics gave a glimpse of the matters the 21st century politics was going to be based on. The 21st century, with its traditional border disputes, expansionism, and military takeovers, also began to debate about how and when one could save the very lands that they fought over. Modern diplomatic practices therefore evolved, and diplomats began to take part in conferences and summits that discussed human rights, common goods, and climate change.

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This paper therefore investigates how modern diplomacy made space for issues like the climate. By doing so, the task is to understand climate diplomacy; by defining it and by exploring how well it fits in modern diplomacy. The intention to scrutinize such details is to understand how important it is in contemporary times and how states like Pakistan can benefit from engaging in it.

Climate Diplomacy: Nature and Purpose

The Oxford dictionary defines diplomacy as ‘the management of International Relations by negotiations; the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys; the business or art of the diplomatist’.2 From the definition, one can evaluate that the function of diplomacy is mainly restricted to the issues and interactions between nation-states.

Any state in this anarchic world would always prioritize security. For this, if need be, they would build armies and technological assets that have the potential to back off massive attacks from the adversary. But what happens if the threat is from the planet itself? How is that addressed? What armies are needed for it? Where do they plan to strike? These very questions have made states all over the world resort to each other for answers.

The degrading environment has made it imperative for countries to look towards sustainability for their own survival, and since the entire planet cannot be saved by the policies of just one state, it has therefore become highly significant to consult amongst each other over the matter. Hence, we must make room for what we now refer to as climate diplomacy.3

It is defined as “The practice and process of creating the international climate change regime and ensuring its effective operation as well as evaluation to address emerging challenges related to climate change.” Since the environment does not abide by administrative borders, therefore it only makes sense if the community of states come together to cater to its demands.

Regimes, be they security or monetary, are the platform for states to bring out their finest diplomacy to influence the rest into attaining their national interests. The International Monetary System, the United Nations, Shanghai Cooperation Organization are all examples of how states try to negotiate for their best gains. A climate change regime would not be any different.

The role that it is meant to play is to bridge up national interest debates with international cooperation because, like nuclear weapons and terrorism, climate change is an issue that has the capacity to present a credible threat to prosperity and security of the world, if badly managed.4 The main pillars by which climate diplomacy swears by include creating successful policies to address mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.5

These pillars present the various levels of environmental degradation and how damages can be traced to their sources, and either controlled or eliminated completely. Mitigation is directed to address the root causes of climate change; adaptation seeks to lower the risks posed by consequences of climate change; whereas loss and damage include the attempts to save what can be saved.

Climate Change Regime: An Evolution

Climate diplomacy began the same day climate change began to be taken as a threat. The world had its first climate conference in 1979,6 realizing that the rising carbon dioxide levels due to high carbon footprints meant that natural calamities would take more lives than conventional wars. This led to the formation of a panel by the United Nations that successfully managed to draft the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Even though both the United States and Russia withdrew from it, the world still managed to bring it into effect in 2005. Of course, the regime’s initiations do not mean that the change had also happened then. Our beloved environment began to take a toll from human activity back in the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. The action, as evident from the progress, came way too late.

Even though it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, countries like the U.S. and Russia unilaterally made efforts to deal with the issue. The issue also became one of the main UN agendas when in 2009 the United Nations Executive Committee on Economic and Social Affairs (UNECESA) submitted a report to the General Assembly regarding the driving factors of rising poverty, social and economic injustice across the world. Climate change was the first on that list.

The fact that such an underrated issue could have such magnanimous outcomes brought states around the world on their toes. This was also the instance that the regime began to be taken more seriously than before, and the summit diplomacy that was looked down upon began to be appreciated for the role it could play to overcome these emerging challenges. Bali meetings and Copenhagen conferences all became a medium to finalize treaties.

Finally, in 2015, the Paris Agreement took form and became the latest achievement of the regime. The regime, however, is not restricted to just the environment and foreign ministries. It also includes non-governmental organizations and individual activists; Greenpeace International and Greta Thunberg are such examples. The world now attempts to successfully integrate the Paris agreement into domestic laws so that the recovery process for the planet can catch speed.

Climate Diplomacy as part of Modern Diplomacy

Any mention of climate diplomacy without investigating its placement in modern diplomatic practices bars any further understanding of why it can benefit Pakistan. Modern diplomatic practices begin with getting the people on board with the government’s policies. The intention is to practice open and transparent diplomacy, which will allow the government to influence the narratives and get feedback.

Hence, from the presidents to civil society groups, all form part of modern diplomacy.7 Climate diplomacy, therefore, is placed in modern diplomacy, for the transnational, globalized nature of the issue makes it imperative to be on the same table with war and economics. Having investigated the nature of climate diplomacy and, more importantly, evaluated its significance in the 21st century, this paper can now proceed to the next section.

Climate Change: Pakistan‘s Progress

Blessed with a prime location in South Asia, Pakistan enjoys a distinct climate across its length. The country’s topographical features include mountain ranges, plains, glaciers, deserts, rivers, seas, and access to oceans. Such remarkable topography provides the country the facility to utilize these features to achieve the best for itself.

However, such crucial settings and features also mean that the dramatic changes in the environment will make the country much more vulnerable. As per the Global Climate Index, the region of South Asia is very much prone to extreme weather events like heavy monsoon rainfalls that result in floods and high, glacier melting, heat waves.8

As per the nature of South Asian revenue-generating sectors, this means that a degraded environment and a changing climate will directly pose threats to the region’s economy, human health, agriculture, and the ecosystem. Additional challenges of food insecurity and migrations (both internal and external) are also the pointers made by the Index.

In the past twenty years, Pakistan has lost 99899 lives to extreme weather conditions including floods, droughts, and heatwaves. It has witnessed a total of 152 extreme weather events and as a consequence of climate change, Pakistan has lost a total of 3.8 billion dollars. A massive amount, considering the country struggles to regain stable economic growth.

Pakistan today is one of the most urbanized countries in the world. The hotspots of these shifts are the provinces of Punjab and Sindh to be exact. Some of the future threats that the country faces include variability of monsoons, recessions of glaciers, increased siltation of downstream water reservoirs, floods, droughts, heatwaves, saline water intrusion in the Indus Delta, and increased cyclone activity.

The socio-economic threats of the consequences that these poses include increased poverty, migration, diseases, and socio-economic injustice. Given the country’s position right now, it cannot afford any of these. The debate may seem domestic in nature, but the climate does not discriminate international from domestic. The threats and losses for an agrarian country and its geographical location mean that its shared natural features make the country susceptible to the impact of the actions of the border states.

Climate Diplomacy: The Performance of Pakistan

Pakistan may have been part of summits and conferences that eventually formed the Kyoto Protocol, but it did not take any substantial step towards climate change till after 2005. 2005 was the year when the Prime Minister’s Committee on Climate Change was first established. The committee released a National Environment Policy in the same year. The policy defined climate change and highlighted the areas that it affected in the country.

In 2008, the Planning Commission established a “Task Force on Climate Change” that began to work on sectoral strategies, for instance, National Water Policy, National Forest Policy, and National Conservation Policy. As the government had already ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the main agenda of these policies included the implementation of the agreement.

Pakistan has signed and ratified several international agreements including Basel Convention, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Paris Agreement, and the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change. On paper and from all this participation,10 it seems that the country has things under control. It has taken an active part in regional and international conferences on climate and have supported declarations.

An example is the Thimphu Declaration, SAARC’s declaration on climate change. Even the National Assembly established a department dedicated to the SDGs. However, reports, submitted to the UNDP (which aids Pakistan in combating climate change), for the past decade have shown that the country’s projects were uncoordinated and due to this at times have been left incomplete.

When such problems were traced to their root causes, it was found that the Commission that could have been turned to a ministry had been sidelined as a department, resulting in the poor performance at home and abroad. The Nawaz Sharif government of 2013 was criticized for prioritizing trade and transport despite 2011’s disastrous floods. Meanwhile, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI government’s climate advisor Malik Amin Aslam began the “Billion Tree Drive” to fight off pollution.

In August 2018, when Imran Khan took the Premiership of the country and included combating climate change as an agenda in his policies. As part of this, he extended the “Billion Tree Tsunami” to a “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami”, planning to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, ban the use of plastic bags, and generate a global climate conservation debate. To achieve this, PM Khan reinstated a ministry for climate change headed by Zartaj Gul.

Prime Minister Khan’s “apparent proactive” environmentalist approach has grabbed international praise for the country from all over the world. His take on climate diplomacy presents a model that Pakistan can take to become an active climate change advocate. Despite taking note of the situation, the government has still been criticized for the slow pace of action. Words, as per some critics, do not lower carbon emissions.

It is fair to conclude that Pakistan is pacing up, though slowly. The National Climate Change Policy of Pakistan 2021 not only defines the threats the country faces but it also outlines the consequential challenges of climate change including poverty and socio-economic injustice. The policy itself has been appreciated for its substance.

How will Pakistan benefit from Climate Diplomacy?

The previous sections of the paper set the base for climate diplomacy. This part of the paper is now directed to understand what merits it holds for the country. So far, it has been said that if Pakistan becomes active in climate diplomacy, it can boost its international image and advance its trade.11 Countries from the European Union give special preference to deals with states actively fighting for issues like climate change.

Diplomacy, after all, is an art to achieve national interests through peaceful means; climate diplomacy could most certainly benefit Pakistan’s security interests.12 Since the climate is a transnational issue, it can be used against this country. Pakistan’s survival can never become more threatened than this. The conclusions drawn have been cataloged under the following three headings.

Security Benefits

Strengthened internal stability will make sure that the country is more available to cater to traditional external threats. Prime Minister Khan mentioned glaciers melting, coupling it with a threat to humanity. How is that link created? Glaciers may result in the release of diseases and viruses that have unforeseen calamities. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that most countries cannot afford such natural disasters as they lack the capacity to cater to them.

In addition, melting glaciers will reduce our overall agriculture. The food insecurity that the index predicted will become a reality. Karachi is living evidence of what will happen if drinking water begins to be compromised. Pakistan is a third world country; she can manage one threat at a time properly. Its economic conditions, especially in contemporary times, will shatter it. This conclusion is reached based on the economic recession set by the pandemic, not all economies may jump immediately like the Chinese economy.

A weakened economy makes a state even more susceptible to traditional challenges. Climate diplomacy will allow Pakistan to get into alliances and agreements which will aid it throughout the process. Moreover, Pakistan will have a sort of an international and regional firewall around it. Traditional challenges may then be given all the attention so that the territorial integrity remains intact.

Economic Benefits

With a contribution to GDP of over 20%, Pakistan’s food, raw material, agriculture, and employment are dependent on the sector. The technology needed to save the sectors may take time to build unilaterally. However, if Pakistan gets on board with climate change advocacy, it can access the kind of technology needed to cater to such issues, at a lower price too. European countries are gaining strength in this sector; the state’s efforts can get it a stronger partner. Domestically, it will save the country from immediate threats of food insecurity and unchecked urbanization.

Secondly, reserving climates can benefit Pakistan through sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism throughout the world is appreciated. Efforts are made to make people an active part of this entire process. With the future being bleak if it remains dependent on fossil fuels, Pakistan’s energy sector will face serious shortages, and this means that any industrial progress for the country will be dangerously slowed down.

International and Regional Benefits

Diplomacy in any sector, be it security, economy, social issues, is entitled to achieve what constitutes the betterment of the country. In short, national interests. Any diplomatic move has sideline benefits attached, and climate diplomacy is no different. Correct political mapping of the people and organizations in the government and the non-governmental sector must be carried out. International and regional forums should be used to spark debates on the issue.

To make efforts more fruitful, enhancing research in the area will also ensure that Pakistan contributes to the myriad of solutions states are suggesting for climate change, making space for Track 5 diplomacy which allows countries to spread their progress and ideas through research and education. This will make the case of climate diplomacy stronger for Pakistan. In addition, it will benefit employment, boost the R&D of the country, and increase investment pools, among others.


The 21st century ended the Cold War, started the Global War on Terror, and witnessed traditional and non-traditional challenges rising each passing year. Climate is a non-traditional issue, but it has the potential to become more dangerous than traditional issues. Pakistan continues to harbor the threats it has had since its inception. Any added challenges will put her in more trouble. Therefore, even though she is late to the party, it is imperative that the change is embraced.


1 Robert D. Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy,” The Atlantic, February 1, 1994, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/02/the-coming-anarchy/304670/.

2 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Diplomacy.”

3 Nick Mabey, Liz Gallagher, and Camilla Born, Understanding Climate Diplomacy: Building Diplomatic Capacity and Systems to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change. E3G, 2013, 12-20, accessed July 20, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep17706.

4 Mabey, Gallagher, and Born, Understanding Climate Diplomacy, 35-67.

5 Mabey, Gallagher, and Born, Understanding Climate Diplomacy, 21-34.

6 “A brief history of climate change,” BBC News, September 20, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-15874560.

7 SWP, “New Realities in Foreign Affairs: Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” November 2018, accessed July 20, 2020, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/new-realities-in-foreign-affairs-diplomacy-in-the-21st-century/.

8 David Eckstein et al. Global Climate Risk Index 2020, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/20-2-01e%20Global%20Climate%20Risk%20Index%202020_14.pdf.

9 Syed Muhammad Abubakar, “Pakistan 5th most vulnerable country to climate change, reveals Germanwatch report,” DAWN, Jan. 16, 2020, https://www.dawn.com/news/1520402/pakistan-5th-most-vulnerable-country-to-climate-change-reveals-germanwatch-report.

10 Rina Saeed Khan, “How effective Is PTI’s climate change policy?” The Express Tribune, Oct. 3, 2019, https://tribune.com.pk/article/88621/how-effective-is-ptis-climate-change-policy.

11 Fahad Saeed, “Greener Pakistan: A case for climate diplomacy,” October 5, 2018, https://www.thethirdpole.net/2018/10/05/greener-pakistan-a-case-for-climate-diplomacy/.

[12] Dennis Tanzler and Alexander Carius, “Beyond International Climate Negotiations: Climate Diplomacy from a Foreign Policy Perspective,” in Climate Change: International Law and Global Governance: Volume II: Policy, Diplomacy and Governance in a Changing Environment, ed. Ruppel Oliver C., Roschmann Christian, and Ruppel-Schlichting Katharina, 259-74. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2013, accessed July 20, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv941vsk.


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