Analysis: Could the Afghan crisis derail climate action?

Photo credit: IOM / Muse Mohammed.

By Anders Lorenzen

The crisis in Afghanistan reached a new peak this month when the US officially withdrew its forces from the country.  

The situation in the landlocked country, which has been the centre of various geo-political battles in recent times, became severely unstable.

The extremist terrorist group the Taliban soon marched forward to claim city after city and region after region with rapid speed, the President fled the country and before long the Taliban had seized control of the country.

Many have been surprised by how quickly the situation intensified, even though we’ve know of the US’s intention to withdraw its troops since last year.

Derailing climate action

In this crucial climate year with COP26 happening in a few months, some worry that with countries now having to deal with a major foreign policy and security issue, this rapidly unfolding geo-political crisis could derail climate action just as countries were starting to refocus their attention on the climate crisis whilst gradually coming out of the pandemic. 

Hugo Dixon, a columnist at Reuters argues that the Western alliance could be so damaged by the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan that it can’t provide the leadership needed to tackle the escalating climate emergency. “The Afghan calamity will suck up leaders’ attention in coming months, meaning it will be harder to build momentum in the run-up to November’s crucial COP26 climate conference, which is supposed to result in a big push by countries across the world to come up with more ambitious decarbonisation plans,” he writes.

He further underlines the consequences of such inaction: “If the effort to address the climate crisis flags, it is not just that the planet will fry and there will be more extreme weather events of the sort experienced in recent months. There will be a myriad of knock-on effects on financial markets: there will be less investment in zero- and low-carbon technologies than there would otherwise be; the price of carbon, which has risen sharply in the past year, may fail to maintain its upward trajectory; and, by failing to take swift action to mitigate the damage, the world will be storing up massive economic and fiscal pain.”

Early days

It is still early days in the Afghan crisis and therefore too early to say what the consequences will be. Once international  citizens have been evacuated alongside with Afghan citizens they owe a debt to we’ll know more.

There will inevitably be climate advocates who will point out that the huge costs of fighting the war in Afghanistan would be much better spent on climate action and that the international withdrawal from the country will free up funds to work on the climate crisis. 

But destabilising a country is of course never beneficial to tackling the climate crisis. For example the progress the Afghan president had made on decarbonising the economy before he fled will now inevitably be placed on indefinite hold. In addition, the country is sitting on vast mineral wealth such as rare earth minerals and lithium crucial for transitioning to a green economy. 

The sad reality is that Afghanistan is extremely vulnerable to climate change and many would argue that the impacts of climate change have in fact contributed to the strengthening of the Taliban as especially rural economies have suffered greatly in recent years creating a fertile recruitment opportunity for disgruntled rural farmers. 

COP26, where world leaders will need to come forward with more ambitious emission reduction targets than those committed during COP21 in Paris, in 2015 will take place in Glasgow, the UK in November.

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