TWENTY-FIVE years ago, the world came together at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and agreed that the world’s environment could not be endlessly exploited. It had to be conserved through sustainable development. Around the same time, Pakistan was a world leader in ‘localising’ the global agenda with the approval of the National Conservation Strategy.
Therefore, this World Environment Day, a quarter century later, is a good time to reflect on whether the objectives of the Earth Summit were met, and if Pakistan met the objectives it set for itself in the National Conservation Strategy.
This question is not an abstract one for Pakistan. If the world does not slow climate change, Pakistan is among the six countries that will be most affected. As glaciers melt in the Himalayas, flooding is projected to substantially increase with the possibility of a repetition of the floods of 2010 and 2011.
Pakistan will be among those most affected by climate change.
Moreover, in the longer term as glaciers recede, the country must cope with the challenges of decreased river flows with the obvious effect on agriculture and urban water supplies, but also the less obvious effect of the depletion of underground aquifers from overuse and in some cases from insufficient recharge. Monsoon rains are likely to fluctuate more as climate change increasingly affects patterns of rainfall, thus provoking alternating floods and droughts.
The likely increase in climate-related disasters would take a heavy toll on people, on infrastructure and on the economy. The harsh effects on people from the current extended drought in Sindh’s Tharparkar district shows what could happen in other parts of Pakistan as climate change accelerates. It is not an accident that four of the Sustainable Development Goals are related to the environment, for if those issues are not dealt with, it will not be possible for the other goals to be met — whether that means a reduction of poverty, reduced inequality, peaceful and inclusive societies, access to energy, health, education and more.
But what can Pakistan do to reduce its vulnerability to climate change? The 1990 National Conservation Strategy laid out a series of actions that would make Pakistan more resilient to the effects of climate change, while conserving what is unique and special in the environment and enabling human development. Action was taken in many areas: vast areas in Gilgit-Baltistan are better protected than they were, renewable energy is used much more and Pakistan has some of the leading expertise in the world on that. There is much more capacity in government, civil society and academia, and there is whole set of environment-related laws that did not exist before.
However, the many challenges Pakistan has been facing, whether from a complex regional security environment, or from larger-than-projected effects of climate change, means that Pakistan still has immense work to do in adapting to these changes. Adaptation will require significant investment in alternatives — both alternative energy sources and extensive water conservation and management — as well as in protecting people and infrastructure. As the frequency and duration of major climate change patterns accelerates, this could affect economic growth, particularly in Pakistan’s vitally important agricultural sector, on which tens of millions of people depend.
This year Pakistan has taken crucial strides in battling these global challenges. The landmark legislation, the Climate Change Act 2017, brings Pakistan into the small group of countries with specific legislation building on the commitments made in Paris in 2015. The scope of the legislation is impressive and reflects the scale of the challenges: establishment of the high-level Climate Change Council, the full-fledged Climate Change Authority and the Climate Change Fund. Such institutional arrangements are instrumental in the uphill struggle against climate change in Pakistan, in fulfilling Pakistan’s international environmental commitments, but most importantly in building resilience and the national capacity to adapt to climate change.
According to recent estimates, over the next 40-50 years it will cost Pakistan $10.7 billion each year to adapt to climate change. The Climate Change Act is a step in the right direction to start addressing the issue and implement the action plans for mitigating the enormous risks of climate change and meeting the SDGs.
Twenty-five years ago, the world and Pakistan recognised that progress in human development was indivisible from sustainable development. In 2015, world leaders recognised that again both at the SDG summit and the Climate Change Conference. Support by all in Pakistan and internationally for the implementation of Pakistan’s climate change act is a necessity. If that happens, 25 years from now on June 5, 2042, Pakistan is much more likely to be a country where the effects of climate change will have been mitigated and one where the SDGs were met long ago.
The writer is UN resident coordinator in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2017