When is the last time you heard New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States getting inspired by a war-torn province in Pakistan to deliver one of the most audacious interventions to fight climate change in the history of humanity? The answer is likely never because we are too cynical to ever celebrate anything good coming out of our country.
“The billion-tree tsunami has a very interesting back story,” shares Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change and Global Vice President of Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “After winning 2013 elections in KPK, Imran Khan said we need to plant trees, so I pushed our department in KPK to set a big target. It was a good department, but they were used to doing business as usual work like we plant a few trees this year and then some more next year. When I took the plan to Imran Khan, I still remember he said yeh kia hai, when you dream, you need to dream big. And that’s when we set the goal of a billion trees.”
Not only did Pakistan meet and exceed the target of a billion trees but it was a game changer for Pakistan as it changed our impression in the world. That phrase of a billion trees rung around the world, according to Aslam, with New Zealand and the UK starting their own version of a billion-tree project and the US passing an act for a trillion trees. “The countries contacted Pakistan and tried to learn how we accomplished such big goal,” Aslam shared.
If Karachi rains stand at one end of the spectrum on how the PPP government prepared for climate change in Sindh, the PTI stands at the other end of the spectrum in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. And this is where the story takes a surprising twist few people know. The PTI government wanted to sign Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa up for the Bonn challenge, where countries voluntarily set climate change goals but the federal government (PML-N at the time) opposed the move, according to Aslam. When the province wrote to the Bonn challenge, they responded by saying they only take goals from countries at a national level, not provinces.
Not taking climate change lightly, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government built a case at the Bonn challenge and got their targets accepted. The Bonn challenge has big countries like the US, the UK and Brazil, who have national targets but the little war-torn province in Pakistan, called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, was the first entity to actually deliver its goals on the Bonn Challenge, becoming the toast of town in global climate change circles.
Fast forward a few years later, things got even more interesting when Covid-19 hit. Unemployment was soaring, national morale was down, and the unemployed youth was migrating back from urban centres to their homes in rural areas. That’s when Aslam conceived the idea of a green stimulus, inspired by the American stimulus during the great depression, which provided mass employment to build infrastructure projects and lifted morale by giving people constructive work. The green stimulus in Pakistan created 84,000 jobs during Covid-19, while simultaneously helping Pakistan fight climate, including planting trees and building nurseries.
When Imran Khan called for debt relief for developing countries in response to Covid-19, the G-20 countries shared that they would prioritise relief to those countries who can deliver on quantifiable progress on climate change and biodiversity. Pakistan is now pitching to become the first pilot country on that. Aslam shares that because of the clarity and visible progress that Pakistan is making on climate change, the country is getting funding from international donors to pursue more such projects and money itself is less of an issue now.
Where did Imran Khan find the political will and vision to champion this cause when Pakistan has so many more pressing issues? To find the answer to that question you need to read Indus Journey, a book Imran Khan wrote in the 1980s, where he travelled across Pakistan, from Karachi to the northern most areas. Who did Imran Khan dedicate the book to? To the dwindling forests and vanishing wildlife of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2020.