Calling all students

Published March 19, 2018
The writer is an environmental sustainability and climate expert, and a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.
The writer is an environmental sustainability and climate expert, and a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.

I RECEIVED spontaneous applause earlier this month in Islamabad. Don’t get me wrong please. It was not for something I said, but rather for reading aloud a quote from the Quaid. The occasion was a presentation on climate and environment, titled Pakistan: A Sustainable Future, to students at the National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust).

In the last 70 years, we have seen population growth, rapid urbanisation and a growing middle class in Pakistan, coupled with a globally more consumptive society and climate change. These change drivers have put our natural resources (air, water and land) under pressure, and have affected our quality of life, with the poor bearing a disproportionate burden. Going forward, this suggests that we need a different approach, in terms of behaviours, and also in the systems we have in place to manage these resources. Ultimately, it’s people that matter. It’s both the people whose quality of life is currently affected by degradation and people with the skills and capacity to do something about it.

It was exciting to speak to undergraduate and postgraduate students at Nust to learn about their research and to see their commitment towards a more sustainable Pakistan. I was particularly pleased to learn about some of their activities on climate and air quality, two issues that affect the health and well-being of a lot of Pakistanis. I was also told of an initiative to eliminate the use of plastic bags on campus, by handing out alternatives, such as reusable jute bags, and everyone, including the vendors, encouraging behaviour change by only agreeing to sell their products if customers used reusable containers.

Meanwhile, in Karachi at the end of February, a student march to highlight joint accountability for cleaning Karachi emphasised individual responsibility for waste disposal in proper containers. Clearly, there is nascent, yet growing, realisation of the need for joint responsibility and accountability to address climate and environmental sustainability issues.

Clearly, Pakistani students are the force that will contribute to a sustainable future for this country.

So how many universities in Pakistan are building skills for environment and climate? Sitting at the same desk in his lab at the HEJ Institute in Karachi University, where 30 years ago he gave me a serious talk about pursuing a Ph.D., Prof Atta-ur-Rahman shared with me some interesting data. There are already 15 higher education institutions (HEIs) in Pakistan offering degrees in environmental sciences and engineering. These HEIs are a great base to build upon and grow, so that we can have our own capacity in-country to work on climate, air quality and other environmental sustainability topics.

Increased emphasis on data gathering and sharing, applied research and evidence-based policy formulation is going to be fundamental going forward. Establishing links with institutes and universities abroad, so we can learn how to do our own PM 2.5 source apportionment and point source pollution modelling will enable us to tell the policymaker exactly what is causing the air pollution, instead of guessing.

Encouraging a basic understanding of climate and environmental sustainability in other HEIs, including business schools, is also critical. Climate risks are as important to Pakistani businesses as financial and other types of risks, especially given the fact that we are one of the top 10 countries most affected by climate globally. Indeed, it is well recognised that climate change presents both risks and opportunities for global markets.

The Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, chaired by Mike Bloomberg, has been active in developing a set of voluntary, consistent disclosure recommendations for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders and insurance underwriters about their climate-related financial risks. It was great to see the State Bank of Pakistan keep pace with global developments through issuance of its own Green Banking Guidelines in October 2017.

I was also impressed by the passionate pitches made by budding entrepreneurs from universities and incubators all over Pakistan at the Momentum Tech Conference in Karachi last month. One exhibit in particular caught my attention: a team from Iqra University in Karachi had designed a device that used IoT to tell authorities when a trash can is full and needs emptying, before it overflows. I was delighted to learn that Bahria Town had approached them to pilot test the invention.

Waste management is a real-world problem that seriously could do with the help and ingenuity of Pakistani students to solve it. Other problems that could also do with help from our tech-savvy youth are how to be more water and energy efficient. Earlier this week, Pakvitae, a Pakistani start-up focused on clean drinking water solutions, out of the National Incubation Centre in Lahore, moved forward to the finals of the Hult Prize 2018, an annual year-long challenge that crowdsources ideas from students to solve pressing social issues. I would love to see a similar focus on climate and environmental challenges by accelerators and incubators active in Pakistan. After all, these potential Pakistani start-ups can already count on a domestic market of 200 million people, and if successful, global growth opportunities.

Clearly, our students are the force that will contribute to a sustainable future for Pakistan. We just need to ensure that we are doing our utmost to prepare them well so they can effectively tackle these challenges. Now back to that quote. It was from a speech made by Quaid-i-Azam on August 11, 1947. He said: “Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in cooperation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet you are bound to succeed.” Seventy years later, it’s time we implement his vision.

The writer is an environmental sustainability and climate expert, and a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2018

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