Rethinking Pakistan’s climate change posture

Pakistan has much work to do before it can claim to be a climate change champion


Syed Mohammad Ali April 30, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

After the initial snub of Pakistan’s omission from the list of 40 world leaders invited to the climate summit, the United States walked back this decision, but only partially. The new US Special Envoy on Climate, John Kerry, visited Bangladesh and India in the lead-up to the climate summit held this past week, but not Pakistan. Pakistan’s participation at the US-hosted summit was also relegated to breakout sessions, where the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, Amin Aslam, was given a few minutes to address a panel on adaptation and resilience.

During his address, Aslam merely reiterated that Pakistan is amongst the worst affected countries in terms of climate impact, and identified measures being championed by his government to address climate change. While the current government continues thinking of itself as a climate change crusader, a reality check is in order.

Asserting that Pakistan contributes less than 1% of global emissions provides scant legitimacy given that our minor contributions to global emissions are not due to our sustainability and conservation record. It is rather an indication of the insignificant size of our economy. The recent ambitious commitments made by Pakistan to clean energy goals remain aspirational at present, as do its plans to undertake aquifer recharge.

After massive deforestation, Pakistan has visibly turned its attention to reforestation, which is a good move, but the results of this effort are not uncontested. Consider how the auditor general last year noted serious losses and irregularities surrounding tree plantation in K-P. The government has also just ordered an audit of the more ambitious 10 billion tree tsunami after finding deviations in federal and provincial components of the project. Even if Pakistan manages to recover its forest cover in coming years, that will not be a panacea for all our environmental challenges.

We continue relying on fossil fuels and the lowest grade of petrol, and one wonders if economic circumstances will allow us to transition to more expensive fuel or achieve vehicle electrification on a wide scale. Pakistan remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its energy portfolio and CPEC has not helped change this. The priority given to generating hydroelectricity is also problematic, given the ecological damage caused by dams. Despite our growing water scarcity, freshwater use for agriculture remains inefficient and wasteful. Pollution is another severe problem, and smog has become a fifth season across densely populated parts of the country.

Pakistan is indeed vulnerable to climate change, and its impacts are already wreaking havoc on the lives of millions in the country. Pakistan will get a chance to highlight these issues when it co-hosts the World Environment Day later this June. However, Pakistan has much work to do before it can claim to be a climate change champion.

Given the competition for limited global funds available to address climate impacts in poorer countries, Pakistan needs to articulate specific possibilities for international support which resonate with geostrategic priorities. Pakistan can, for instance, provide an arena to pilot American cooperation with China on environment which could help not only make CPEC greener but also provide a testing ground for doing the same for the larger Belt and Road Initiative. Secondly, Pakistan should ask for international support to help jointly manage the Kabul River with Afghanistan, the waterways of which are being threatened by the Hindu Kush glacial melt. Thirdly, the need for integrated approaches to managing the Indus River and supporting environmental diplomacy between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are other issues which could use international support.

Our policymakers must do some homework on identifying feasible options for international support concerning relevant issues of geostrategic concern instead of continuing to portray Pakistan as a hapless victim of climate change, while inflating their own accomplishments to contend with growing climate impacts.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2021.

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