How successful has Pakistan’s climate change fight been?

Unless there is a cross-party consensus on the Green Growth Agenda the initial gains could soon fizzle out

Umair Zafar Malik July 17, 2020

According to the Sustainable Development Report 2020, an annual global assessment of countries’ progress towards achieving the United Nations led Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Pakistan has achieved the ‘Climate Action’ SDG ten years ahead of the deadline. This is not only a recognition of Pakistan’s renewed commitment to fighting climate change, but also an endorsement of the success of numerous environmental protection initiatives launched by the government.

Traditionally, climate change has not been a key agenda item in Pakistan’s public discourse which over time has resulted in a gross underestimation of the gravity of the situation. Therefore, it is important to begin by recognising that climate change is a very real threat to Pakistan’s long-term prosperity and survival. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan was the 5th most affected country by the impact of climate change during the twenty-year period from 1999-2018. The Index used a weighted score, based on climate change mediated death toll and loss to the economy (in purchasing power parity terms), to calculate a Climate Risk Index (CRI) score which was then used to rank countries.

With rising Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and a dwindling forest cover, Pakistan’s annual mean temperature is estimated to rise by three to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Already, cities such as Turbat and Nawabshah are witnessing record high temperatures, confirming the worst fears of climate change scientists. The rising temperatures will over time result in rapid melting of the glaciers that feed Pakistan’s rivers, as well as in a projected 60 cm rise in the sea level by the year 2100. Coupled with a high variability in precipitation, these changes are expected to lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, droughts and tropical storms, jeopardising Pakistan’s agriculture, economy, water and food security, as well as the health of the country’s inhabitants.

Despite the seriousness of the threat, Pakistan’s fight against climate change did not really take off until 2013. The origins of the new-found fervor can be traced back to the Billion Trees Afforestation Project (BTAP), popularly known as Billion Tree Tsunami. Through BTAP, over a five-year period the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa restored 350,000 hectares of forestland employing a combination of natural regeneration and planned afforestation. As a result, the province’s forest cover increased by about five per cent and half a million green jobs were created. The initiative received global acclaim after a third-party audit by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) confirmed nearly 85% average survival of the plantations. It exceeded the province’s Bonn Challenge commitment and was hailed as a “true conservation success story” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Not only did the successful execution of BTAP make climate change a significant issue of public interest in Pakistan, it also served to put the country on the map in the global fight against climate change.

Since 2018, Pakistan’s fight against climate change has picked up further pace. There has been a discernible shift in the government’s priorities with the emergence of an overarching “Green Growth Agenda” that has informed several initiatives across the country. With an aim to replicate the success of BTAP on a national level, the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project has been initiated, involving all the federating units with the ambitious goal of planting ten billion trees by 2023. In view of the unique nature of forestry as a labour-intensive sector where it is relatively easy to follow SOP’s for social distancing, the government has also launched a green stimulus package. Through this initiative tens of thousands of labourers who had lost their jobs in the aftermath of the Covid-19 mediated economic slowdown are being employed to plant and protect trees. Similarly, the recent decision to create fifteen national parks across the country, as part of the ‘Protected Areas Initiative’ will not only provide green jobs, but will also help increase the country’s forest cover.

Alongside afforestation and reforestation, reducing GHG emissions has been a major focus of Pakistan’s Green Growth Agenda over the last couple of years. In line with this objective, the traditionally used Euro-II automobile fuel is being gradually transitioned to the cleaner Euro-V variety. Last month the country’s first electric vehicles (EV) policy was also formally approved; the goal of the policy is to have 30% of all vehicles in the country running on electricity by 2030. Together these two initiatives are expected to significantly reduce GHG emissions from automobiles.

Another significant contributor to urban air pollution is the brick kiln industry of Pakistan, which has also specifically been criticised for its role in the worsening smog crisis in parts of Punjab. Over the last year or so, there has been a move to convert the traditional Fixed Chimney Bull’s Trench Kilns (FCBTN) into the more environment-friendly zig-zag technology kilns. Over the next three years, the government should further facilitate this transition by providing soft loans to brick kiln owners.

The energy sector is one of the major sources of GHG emissions in Pakistan. In 2018, fossil fuels formed 66% of Pakistan’s energy mix, contributing both to global warming and to the country’s unsustainably high import bill. As part of the government’s Green Growth Agenda, the country’s energy mix is gradually being altered to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, and to increase the contribution of hydroelectric and renewable energy. Last year the government shelved two major powerplant projects in Rahim Yar Khan and Muzaffargarh that were to run on imported fossil fuels, while there is a renewed focus on building large dams to produce clean energy. By 2030, the government aims to increase the share of clean, green energy to 60% of the total energy mix.

In summary, climate change poses an existential threat to Pakistan. Over the past few years, the government has taken numerous concrete measures to curtail the long-term human and economic impact of this threat. The recent Sustainable Development Report is an acknowledgement of the progress Pakistan has made in the fight against climate change and is a part of the wider global recognition of the country’s climate conscious policies. The magnitude of the challenge however is so enormous that unless there is a cross-party consensus on the Green Growth Agenda, the initial gains could soon fizzle out.

Umair Zafar Malik

The author is a Pakistani cardiologist currently working in the US, who enjoys writing about politics, societal issues and healthcare. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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