Adapting to climate change

Updated August 19, 2019

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The writer is an environmentalist by profession and a Commonwealth Scholar from Durham University, UK.
The writer is an environmentalist by profession and a Commonwealth Scholar from Durham University, UK.

PAKISTAN is the seventh-most vulnerable country to climate change according to Germanwatch, a think tank advocating for measures to combat climate change. People from across the country often discuss the unbearable heat everyone has been experiencing — an everyday topic in every household and workplace. Not only that, it is also a hot global debate. We often hear our politicians talking about Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate crises, but how much the government and its subjects act upon it, is more contestable than questionable.

Besides war in different parts of the world, climate change is the biggest concern that we all have, not only for the security of this generation but also for the survival of the next. Some of the repercussions that we are already seeing are frequent heat waves, floods, melting glaciers, drought and famine.

Keeping Pakistan in mind, there are many aspects of the changing climate and global heating that are affecting this country. Two major areas suffering the impact are health and crop production. It is rather unusual to experience heavy windstorms and rainfall in the months of May and June. At the same time, this June was recorded as one of the hottest in the past few years — in Pakistan and elsewhere. These unusual rains and then the heat wave have affected crop production. We know this because we have not tasted the best mangoes of the season. It rained just when the crops were ready for harvesting.

Planting trees and banning plastics alone won’t lessen our vulnerability to the changing climate.

One of the drastic effects of the changing climate is that it ultimately affects our GDP. What about health? Poor people in Sindh die not only due to malnutrition, but also because of the unbearable heat. Several have died in the recent heavy rains because the appropriate infrastructure is not in place. The smog that hits Lahore each year affects the health of so many. Yet we fail to understand the dangers of the changing climate.

What have we done so far?

We have planted a billion trees in KP, and we are planting more under the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami project. That’s good news. However, is that enough? No, it isn’t. For one, the project hasn’t reached completion yet. Secondly, trees will take time to grow and show their positive effect on the environment. Thirdly, there is speculation that not all the trees being planted are fast growers and helpful for the underground water table. Is that enough to compensate for and balance out the deforestation that is taking place in hilly areas such as Murree and Abbottabad, to accommodate the rising population? In fact, it isn’t enough.

Recently the authorities announced the Plastic Bag Se Azadi campaign. That surely gives hope, but from what we have witnessed in the past, such schemes are never implemented properly in Pakistan. Unless there is strict implementation of the law, we cannot be too optimistic. If the rules are enforced it would be a good start to gaining control over plastic pollution. This does not directly help decrease global heating but will contribute positively to sustaining land and marine life.

The government’s next step should be to ban one-time-use plastics, which include disposable cups, straws and food boxes. That has a direct relation with global heating as a lot of energy is consumed in their production. All plastics are bad, but some alternatives are better than the one-time-use (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics which can be replaced with high-density polyethylene. An example is that of tumblers which are easily available in the market. Styrofoam is yet another culprit, and although a bill was formulated by the Punjab Food Authority in 2018 to ban styrofoam as food packaging, it is yet to be approved, and we see its rampant use in local food markets as well as high-end restaurants.

Our energy systems

While discussing climate change and its effects, we cannot leave out energy systems. Pakistan is heavily reliant on energy generation via fossil fuels for its power needs. Our total energy mix largely includes oil, gas and coal, while a small amount constitutes renewable resources of energy. The Alternative Energy Development Board has been tasked by the government to generate at least five per cent of the total national power generation from renewable resources including solar, hydel, biomass, wind and nuclear by 2030.

Our largest solar PV park, the Quaid-i-Azam Solar Park in Bahawalpur, has a total installed capacity of 1,000MW, yet we do not quite see its benefits. Pakistan also has the potential to utilise its biomass as a source of alternative energy, but there have been many challenges on this front. One such challenge has been the low price of petroleum in the past. Nonetheless, with rising fuel prices and a declining economy, it seems there is a future for biomass as an alternative source of fuel, particularly for the industrial sector.

The recent signing of new contracts to import oil and gas from countries including Russia and Saudi Arabia does not solve our energy crises, and, in fact, will only increase our vulnerability to the changing climate. One can clearly note the geopolitics of energy here. Besides that, the reluctance of people to switch to renewable energy due to their lack of understanding of its benefits is also a huge challenge for the implementing agencies.

It is high time that we attempt an attitudinal shift. Planting trees and banning plastics alone won’t lessen our vulnerability to the changing climate. There is a dire need to wake up to this alarming issue on an individual level and to play our part. We don’t have to do too much other than being ­eco-conscious and responsive to our natural ­surroundings and taking ownership of the latter.

The writer is an environmentalist by profession and a Commonwealth Scholar from Durham University, UK.

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2019