Why the Taliban Should Be Brought in from the Cold for Climate Talks
Why the Taliban Should Be Brought in from the Cold for Climate Talks
A man collects water from a water storage facility on October 15, 2021 in the village of Haji Rashid in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province, where climate change is proving to be a deadlier foe than the country's recent conflicts. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP
Commentary / Asia 10 minutes

Why the Taliban Should Be Brought in from the Cold for Climate Talks

Surviving the impact of climate change and adapting to harsher new environments are collective tasks that need the cooperation of all countries, even Afghanistan under the outcast Taliban regime.

In late November, delegates will gather in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the COP28 summit, where they will wrestle with the global problem of climate change. But not all corners of the planet will be represented. Behind the scenes of summit preparations, debates simmered about whether to include all the world’s governing authorities in the talks, even those widely seen as pariahs. The Taliban were a case in point. Officials were wary of giving them a role in discussions surrounding COP28, though their de facto regime in Afghanistan lacks international recognition. No foreign government wishes to give legitimacy to the Taliban, which seized power by force of arms in 2021, and is denying Afghan women and girls access to education. But the country they rule ranks among those worst affected by climate change, and it needs help to meet that challenge.

Left Out of COP28

In the run-up to the event, the hosts and organisers of the 28th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as COP28 is officially named, struggled with the question of whether to send an invitation to Kabul. They discussed options for including a delegation from Afghanistan but could not settle on a way to do it. In no scenario would the Taliban have been allowed to speak for Afghanistan, given that COP28 is a UN gathering and the Taliban, whose dominion over the country is unrecognised, lack a UN seat. Nor could senior Taliban cadres be invited, since they remain under UN sanctions that forbid them from travelling (at least officially). Rather, the question was whether working-level officials from the Taliban’s de facto government, who are not sanctioned, might come to the UAE and join side events at COP28.

The Taliban’s draconian restrictions on the rights of Afghan girls and women were among the reasons for disquiet. Those familiar with the planners’ thinking relayed their fears that even a short appearance by Taliban representatives on the summit margins would be a distraction at the talks, causing a stir among delegates worried about appearing to legitimise an international outcast. Not everyone thought the Taliban should be excluded: in August, the top UN diplomat in Afghanistan expressed concern about the prospect. UN officials proposed a low-key side event with Afghan technocrats who had also served under previous governments in Kabul. But just a few weeks before the opening ceremony, Taliban officials told Crisis Group that they had not been invited. They doubted that they would be.

This approach – keeping the Taliban out of climate talks on human rights grounds – is understandable but unrealistic from a humanitarian perspective. Afghanistan ranks as the world’s seventh-most vulnerable country amid the ravages of climate change. Already wracked by droughts, floods and other natural disasters, it will witness further sharp increases in temperature in coming decades (Figure 1). Like many countries that bear the brunt of global warming, Afghanistan has done very little to contribute to the problem and will need considerable international help to survive it. Waiting until political change comes to Afghanistan to face this challenge could mean that no help arrives for decades, if ever, and will leave the country unequipped to cope by itself. Whether at COP28 or other forums, the world must eventually start talking with the Taliban about adaptation strategies. No matter how unpalatable it may be, bringing Kabul into climate talks is necessary if international action on this issue is to be truly global and if Afghanistan’s people are to be duly protected.

1. The surface temperature in Afghanistan is projected to rise faster than the global average*

Facing the Challenge

One benefit of the debate over who would get invited to COP28 is that it has prompted reflection among the Taliban, helping them begin reckoning with the challenge they are facing and strategising for how to get the international support they need. In making their pitch to diplomats to be included in COP28, Taliban officials refined their case. In particular, they pointed out that Afghanistan, which has some of the lowest historical emissions of greenhouse gases, did almost nothing to spark the climate crisis yet is suffering some of its most extreme effects – including extended drought interrupted by sudden flooding. In private, the Taliban also admitted to diplomats in Kabul that their isolated regime does not have the capacity to build enough infrastructure, water management and early warning systems to help the country – and, importantly, downstream neighbours like Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan – handle flash floods and spells of drought that will continue worsening (Figure 2).

2. Precipitation in Afghanistan has increasingly swung between extreme highs and lows in recent years. Both rainfall excesses (blue) and deficits (red) affect larger areas (height) for longer periods of time (width), heightening flood and drought risks**

Nor do the Taliban have the resources to investigate the tipping points that could dramatically magnify the scale of Afghanistan’s environmental problems. For example, they are aware that underground aquifers are dwindling as Afghans in many parts of the country dig wells deeper and deeper in search of water, but they have no reliable information about when the pumps will go dry, and no funding or technical capacity to generate that data. The same uncertainty hangs over Afghan rivers: levels are dropping, and once perennial waterways no longer flow in the dry season. Nobody knows how much water will remain in the future, as the snowpacks and glaciers that feed some of Afghanistan’s largest rivers melt in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Water shortages, floods and other climate-related pressures are likely to be devastating. About 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s 40 million people live in rural areas, with most dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that 40 per cent of the Afghan population already suffers from high or acute food insecurity, some of the worst rates in the world. Climate problems also spill across borders, chiefly into countries that depend on water from rivers that spring in Afghanistan. Disputes over transboundary rivers are growing between Kabul and nearby capitals, particularly Tashkent and Tehran, raising tensions among neighbours. Part of the problem is that the Taliban are constructing rudimentary dams and canals that reduce flows to other riparian states. Better management of transboundary rivers would require expertise and funding that do not exist in Kabul at present. A Taliban official told Crisis Group that floods and other natural disasters inflict tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damages annually. The humanitarian situation is worsened by other shocks, such as Pakistan’s decision to force hundreds of thousands of Afghan migrants back into Afghanistan. “We are grappling with empty hands and competing disasters”, he said.

What Donors Can Do

Outside donors are the only ones who can fill the gaps in funding and know-how. In a sense, funds have already been identified. Current and former Afghan officials say their country was eligible for more than $800 million from three pools of money before the Taliban takeover: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund. State parties to climate agreements started contributing to these funds in the 1990s, when they began looking for collective solutions to climate problems, saying they wanted to provide a buffer to countries that are poorer and more vulnerable to environmental shocks.

All the projects that these funds would have enabled stalled, however, when the former government in Kabul collapsed under military pressure from the Taliban in 2021. UN officials are most optimistic about reviving those under the GEF, which has made contact with the de facto Taliban authorities, but these are tentative steps in an administrative process that often takes several years. Most of the time, when the Taliban send letters to international climate bodies, they get no answer. One climate fund did recently email the Taliban, but merely to let them know that correspondence with their regime is not permitted.

Foreign governments have started thinking about how to help Afghanistan deal with environmental challenges in a way that is less constrained by the disputes with Kabul over formal recognition.

Whether or not stimulated by the pre-COP28 debate over the Taliban, there are modest signs that foreign governments have started thinking about how to help Afghanistan deal with environmental challenges in a way that is less constrained by the disputes with Kabul over formal recognition. For example, Afghanistan envoys from major Western donors departed from their usual boilerplate language at a meeting in Rome in October as they called for “creative, sustainable solutions to the grave environmental challenges facing the country”. Separately, an independent review of international engagement with Afghanistan, led by UN special coordinator and former Turkish foreign minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, concluded in its report to the UN Security Council in mid-November that the world should offer more cooperation and assistance to Kabul in the fields of climate adaptation and transboundary natural resource management.

New thinking may also emerge from a landmark UN study on climate change, peace and security in Afghanistan that is set to be published in December. UN officials say the text is not yet complete, but it may suggest options for a way forward that would see international actors play a greater role in addressing climate risks in Afghanistan; easing the country’s access to climate financing; advocating for technical engagement from multilateral and bilateral donors with Kabul on climate resilience; and promoting regional cooperation in shared resource management, among other steps.

Overcoming Scepticism

Of course, the debate over how, or whether, to include the Taliban in plans for climate adaptation is only one of the many tough dilemmas UN agencies and foreign donors face in post-war Afghanistan. The Taliban have sabotaged their international standing by denying women and girls rights and freedoms, including with edicts forbidding Afghan women staff from working at some of the offices of UN and humanitarian organisations in the country. But donors are likely mistaken if they believe that isolation and economic pressure will persuade the Taliban to change their discriminatory policies, many of which are popular among their supporters and fundamental to their vision for Afghan society.

Moreover, while donors’ concerns are legitimate, they should be balanced against the difficult realities of the situation in Afghanistan. One of those realities is that actions intended to hurt or punish Kabul economically tend to disproportionately affect women, as shortages of food, medicine and other essentials tend to have the gravest effects on the most disadvantaged. Another is that women are increasingly part of the labour force that is suffering due to climate change. Deepening poverty has pushed more Afghan women to work outside the home, with female labour force participation rising to 43 per cent in 2023 from 16 per cent in 2020. Some of the sectors in which Afghan women tend to find work – especially agriculture, their biggest employer – are also at the greatest risk from warming temperatures. These women are therefore among those who will pay the highest price if donors withhold climate financing that can be used to build water infrastructure and resiliency.

[Climate change is] one of the few topics on which the Taliban and foreigners tend to see eye to eye.

Against this backdrop, the UN and donor governments should consider whether climate change is an issue where they might work in concert to make progress with Kabul. It is, after all, one of the few topics on which the Taliban and foreigners tend to see eye to eye. During their years as insurgents, the Taliban prided themselves as stewards of natural resources in areas they controlled, banning locals from cutting down trees and enforcing rules on water sharing in villages. They now claim to have retained government staff who worked on Afghanistan’s previous climate plans and say they will expand those efforts. The Taliban say they have already started rolling out policies related to climate change – for example, enforcing limits on emissions from coal-fired heating systems that often blanket Afghan cities with choking haze in the winter.

Up to this point, none of these considerations has been sufficient to overcome international scepticism about engagement with the Taliban. But a global challenge like climate change requires global solutions – not least because shocks in one country reverberate elsewhere. If Afghanistan’s rivers dry up and its crops wither, the humanitarian implications will be terrible, and the effects will be felt outside the country’s borders. Mass migration, reduced river flows and conflict fuelled by resource scarcity – these and other scenarios could significantly affect other parts of the world. While the moment for easing Afghanistan into global climate discussions at COP28 appears to have gone, there will be plenty more opportunities to think about how to appropriately integrate it into future dialogues. Technical talks will follow COP28, and COP29 is only a year away. It is not too early to start planning ways to include Afghanistan.

*Methodology: The chart depicts historic and projected temperature changes over land surface, based on observed temperature data from 1950 to 2022 (CRU), and projected temperatures from 2023 to 2100 (CMIP 6, SSP2-4.5 scenario), derived via the World Bank Climate Knowledge Portal. Data are smoothed with a 21-year moving average. Each grey line represents a country; Afghanistan is highlighted. The global average is based on an area-weighted average of all countries worldwide.

**Methodology: The chart depicts monthly precipitation anomalies, based on CHIRPS data at a spatial resolution of approximately 5 km per pixel. Z-scores are considered at the pixel level, comparing each month’s precipitation to that of the same month of previous years, 1990-2023. Z-score = (preci m y – Mean_preci m) / (SD_preci m + 0.01), with i, m and y denoting the pixel, month and year, respectively. A small value of 0.01 is added to the denominator to avoid high z-scores in areas with low inter-annual precipitation variability. Next, the sum of pixels with z-scores below (above) 1 are summarised to derive the share of the country affected by rainfall deficit (excess) in a given month.


Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Project Director, Climate, Environment and Conflict

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