The unprecedented, devastating damage caused by extreme hurricanes, sweeping wildfires, violent floods, and severe droughts in many parts of the world in 2018 are testament to the fact that no country, regardless of its wealth, power, or level of development, is insulated from the impacts of climate change. With news headlines seemingly being ripped straight from apocalyptic science fiction stories, 2018 has witnessed some climate change predictions that many thought were still distant possibilities rather than our current reality. However, these circumstances will only worsen as global average temperatures rise. Limiting the warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, as reported by the latest publication from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), therefore, indicates the urgency and extent of the efforts required, at both global and national levels, to tackle climate change.
In less than a decade, the indicators of climate change have shifted from slow-onset impacts, such as sea level rise and melting of polar snow, including the snow reserves in the Himalayas, to the urgency of constantly putting out wildfires and coping with large-scale damages caused by frequent and deadly floods. The large-scale damages have surpassed earlier conjecture. What makes climate change a bigger challenge is the fact that, unlike other disasters caused by say, earthquakes like the one we witnessed in 2015, climate change-induced disasters are going to increase in number each year with exponentially worse impacts.
Speaking a common language
Due to its diverse geography and poor economy, Nepal, will be affected by the consequences of its impacts as well as well as rising climate change impacts. Experts assert that seemingly unusual scenarios such as the flood of 2017, will no longer be considered abnormal but instead be regarded as the ‘new normal’. Addressing the new normal is only possible with clear policies and committed institutions that possess the mandate, the expertise, and the financial support—all of which in our case, require strengthening or at least revisiting.
As part of its global commitment, Nepal has already made strides to help mitigate climate change through its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but at-home adaptation is important and, therefore, the NDC has emphasised actions on adaptation as a national priority. Adaptation, by its very nature, is multifaceted, complex, and falls under the responsibility of multiple agencies representing various sectors from water to agriculture and energy to disaster reduction. A significant gap exists between the level of support required and what is available to implement adaptation actions. Assessing the adaptation gap, which is perhaps the first step in addressing climate change, is vital. However, since the job falls under the responsibility of multiple sectors employing both state and non-state actors with diverse expertise, compelling them to speak a common language and act together for a common cause becomes, especially to create synergy between and among various responses, extremely important. Ultimately, this is a big institutional challenge.
The institutional mechanism established to address climate change is an important indicator that illustrates the emphasis placed by the state on the issue and how it ensures the follow-through of its global as well as national commitments. The fact that many developed and developing countries have already established dedicated institutions shows the importance they have given to tackling climate change. For example, Norway has its Ministry of Climate and Environment; Denmark has its Ministry of Climate, Energy, and Building. Canada does it through its Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. The UAE has a Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. Cambodia has the Department of Climate Change under its Ministry of Environment, while the Philippines has a Climate Change Commission. Vanuatu, a small South Pacific island nation of fewer than 300,000 people, has a Ministry of Climate Change that streamlines its climate responses. New Zealand has Ministry for the Environment. Going a step further, New Zealand even appointed two ministers at one point in time: one to address climate change issues and the other to oversee international climate change negotiations.
In South Asia, Pakistan has a Ministry of Climate Change, while Bangladesh and India have added climate change to the existing Environment and Forest ministry and reformed the ministry as Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change with a renewed mandate. Bhutan has the National Environment Commission, which looks at climate change issues.
Meeting national obligations
Since it’s a highly vulnerable country, Nepal undoubtedly requires a stronger institutional setup to effectively address climate change. Recognising the enormity of climate change impacts affecting the livelihood of its citizens and the economy in various parts of the country, and realising how they will undermine the overarching national priority of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Environment Protection Committee (EPC) of the erstwhile Legislative Parliament directed the Government of Nepal to establish a high level climate change institution with a strict mandate to coordinate planning and execution of climate change actions. The directives, in effect, sent a clear message emphasising the need for a strong institution to address climate threats across the country. However, the current institutional scenario tells a different story.
The Federal Parliament, established under the new constitution, does not have an EPC; rather, the task of overseeing the environment and, to some extent, climate change is entrusted to the Agriculture, Cooperative and Natural Resource Committee. The current setup contracts the political commitment Nepal demonstrated through its actions under the EPC in the Legislative Parliament.
The Climate Change Division within the Ministry of Forest and Environment is the primary body within the government authorised to coordinate climate actions across sectors. The new Ministry of Forest and Environment has been formed by merging two erstwhile ministries, the ministries of Forest and Soil Conservation and of Population and Environment, which houses its Climate Change division. As mentioned earlier, Nepal is not only vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but also to its consequences. Therefore, Nepal also needs to address climate change effectively to meet its national obligations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The responsibility of meeting these obligations in the federal context lies primarily with sub-national Governments.
Compared to how climate change has been emphasised by other countries through dedicated institutions, Nepal can stand to learn from other vulnerable countries. Therefore, there is a need to discern the institutional mechanism required to handle an issue as diverse and encompassing as climate change from the federal to the local level—in ways that actually reflect the priority Nepal accords to the issue through its corresponding policies and national commitments.
Upadhya writes on issues relating to watershed, climate change, disasters and their intersections with society.