The planet is going to hell in a hand-basket and no one in Pakistan seems to care beyond a broad policy discourse.
Something is wrong with how we approach the climate crisis in Pakistan. Being wrong on the climate is picking a fight against nature: one that will have severe consequences for us and our children.
I was in Islamabad in late November 2018 for an event hosted by LEAD Pakistan, Pakistan at Global Warming of 1.5°C – 2 °C: Capturing Opportunities and Managing Challenges. Dr Ghulam Rasul, formerly the director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department and now the regional program manager of the Mountain Environment Regional Information System at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), gave a presentation of his latest research on the impacts of climate change in the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. It was a startling preview of the mammoth ICIMOD Hindu Khush Himalaya Assessment Report.
Dr Rasul reported that the glaciers in these mountain ranges were extremely sensitive to climate change — more sensitive than previously thought. According to his report, even if we somehow miraculously manage to stop using fossil fuel today and keep global warming within the 1.5 degree Celsius of pre-industrial levels by the end of this century under the Paris Agreement, these glaciers could lose as much as 36 per cent of their volume. And if we can somehow miraculously confine ourselves to a temperature increase of no more than 2°C under the Kyoto Protocol, these glaciers stand to lose about 50pc of their volume.
At present, we stand a 10pc chance of overshooting this century’s 1.5°C target in just the next five years. This handy Climate Clock tracks global warming to date and counts down how much time we have left. But some business-as-usual models predict temperatures rising as much as 4-6°C by the end of 2100.There will be no Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush glaciers left to melt by then.
The climate crisis is a death foretold: not just a crime against the earth — an ecocide — but also a genocide of the people of these mountain ranges. With no glaciers, no ice, an entire way of life will collapse. To give this a sense of scale, in the rather gloomy The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells quotes from the work of Dr Drew Schindell and team that an increase in temperatures from 1.5°C to 2°C could result in as many as a 150 million deaths worldwide. There will be mass starvation and in the countries (like ours) with coal-based energy and filthy fuels, the toxic air will kill tens of millions. Let that sink in
Then there are wildfires in the Arctic, never experienced in our planet’s history. We’ve crossed 400 parts per million carbon concentration in the atmosphere. The last time carbon concentrations were this high was over 800,000 years ago. There was 95pc species extinction then.
The climate crisis is here, and the scientists at the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tell us that we have until 2030 to get things right. According to the UN: “Without increased and urgent mitigation ambition in the coming years, leading to a sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming will surpass 1.5°C in the following decades, leading to irreversible loss of the most fragile ecosystems, and crisis after crisis for the most vulnerable people and societies.”
We know that Pakistan is vulnerable to the climate crisis. It’s not just the glaciers melting or floods from erratic monsoons that we have to worry about. There are nearly a dozen distinct ecosystems in Pakistan, from the mountains to the delta and everything in between, and each will be impacted differently by the climate crisis. And since Pakistan is a poor country, it will be the poor who will be disproportionately impacted. We know this.
We also know that Pakistan isn’t a big greenhouse gas emitter compared to countries like China or the United States. We’ve complied with our commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. But now our grand plan is to build a highway through our mountain ranges up north and ply, daily, tens of thousands of diesel spewing cargo trucks on it — in the middle of some of the most climate sensitive parts of the planet, and home to the third-largest collection of freshwater. Planting one, 10 or 100 billion trees is only window dressing if you’re going to pollute the rooftop of the world.
We do have a climate policy. We also have the Pakistan Climate Change Act, 2017 and are one of the few countries in the world that can boast actual climate legislation. But there is a massive disconnect somewhere. Something’s not right. The planet is going to hell in a hand-basket and no one in Pakistan seems to care beyond the broad policy discourse that I’ve summarised above. I think there are two reasons for this. First, that we’re hiding behind the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) as well as our ratification of the Paris Agreement. And second, that we’ve not developed a locally contextualised discourse on the climate crisis.
The Principle of CBDR goes back to the UNFCCC that was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and the historical inequity in greenhouse gas emissions. The objective of the UNFCCC is the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.” At the time of the UNFCCC, global carbon concentration in the atmosphere was approximately 356 parts per million. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, they stood at about 280 parts per million.
But back in 1992, it was agreed that “such a level [of greenhouse gas concentration] should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
Of course, none of this matters since we’ve crossed 410 parts per million for the first time this year. On the International Day for Biological Diversity in May this year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform warned that, presently, nature is declining at rates unprecedented in the 250,000 odd years of human history. And the rate of species extinction is rising rapidly.
The historical inequity is that since the Industrial Age, most greenhouse gases have been emitted by countries in the Global North. Less developed countries weren’t to 'blame' for the impending climate crisis, but they would be impacted by it. Many developing countries didn’t have the money or economy to invest in climate adaptation and resilience. Clearly, it was the wealthy, developed nations that were not only historically responsible for the emissions, but also had the economy and money to invest in mitigation. A whole field of climate justice has evolved from here.
The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 to implement the UNFCCC, embodies the Principle of CBDR. It requires Annex-I countries — that is, developed countries — to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions and non-Annex-I countries — developing countries, like Pakistan — to adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis. It envisioned a carbon trading scheme where investments from the Global North to its South would bring necessary technology transfer and economic activity to provide sustainable economic development.
Of course neither the UNFCCC or the Kyoto Protocol have worked. In the quarter century or so since these international instruments were signed, the globe has emitted more greenhouse gas than the quarter century before. At a global scale, as a species, we have done nothing but accelerate the process of climate change and hasten our doom.
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Given how little time the last IPCC report gives us to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions (by 2030), and given how bad things are already, this is no time to stand behind niceties like the Principle of CBDR. In any event, countries aren’t rich and poor on a binary scale. Affluence is along a spectrum, with the affluent in many developing countries having consumption patterns and a carbon footprint rivalling anything one could imagine in New York or Dubai. With the climate crisis, every person and every country has to contribute to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Immediately.
The other thing that the Principle of CBDR does is give countries the ability to hide from their climate responsibilities. Take President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has increased the intensity of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest since taking office earlier this year. When told that the rate of deforestation could lead to a climate tipping point, Bolsonaro hid behind the Principle of CBDR. Brazil is not an Annex-I country, and has no obligation to mitigate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Behaviour like this needs to be called what it is: ecocide. And we can’t let the Principle of CBDR let people get away with it.
And then there’s us. With our dream highway through the mountains and the pivot away from a US-centric security policy. Just like the promises of World Bank funding and the lure of the West during the Cold War was too much to resist the inception of the Indus Waters Treaty and the consequent devastation of the ecosystems of the Ravi and Sutlej basins, the CBDR has blinded us to what the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor plan means for the global and local environment. Do we really want an ecocide so that China can have a Plan B in case its South China Sea route is ever disrupted?
Another source of cognitive dissonance is the repeated exhortation that Pakistan has not only ratified the Paris Agreement but is in full compliance. This needs to be better understood. The questions of whether cabinet approval alone truly suffices as ratification for the purposes of the Vienna Convention can be debated by experts, but what this clever exhortation ducks is the fact that the Paris Agreement isn’t binding. It requires countries to voluntarily submit their contributions to greenhouse gas reduction. As a developing country, Pakistan is allowed to “peak” its greenhouse gas emissions post 2030 in order to maintain economic development.
And so the Principle of CBDR raises its head and we get cognitive dissonance again. In its Initial Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), submitted to the UN in 2016, Pakistan has not committed to any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, we’re taking advantage of the fact that Pakistan is a developing country.
Our INDC deal with the Global North is that we’ll reduce these emissions by 20pc if we can get between $7 to $14 billion per annum for the next decade. If you speak to any of the usual suspects on this, you’ll be told that Pakistan is within its rights as a developing country to exploit its resources for economic development. It’s as if they can’t see the elephant in the room. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that we just commissioned a new coal-fired power plant.
So there’s no great achievement in complying with the Paris Agreement. The only good thing about the INDC is that the Ministry of Climate Change is in the process of reviewing it and intends to file a revised NDC. This will be a test of how much, if at all, the climate vision of this government is different from the previous.
It is also a test of the Ministry of Climate Change, which operates under limited resources, to report on dozens of international environmental agreements. Their operational responsibilities do not answer to the climate crisis as it is manifesting itself in Pakistan. They’re not responsible for when unseasonal rains knocked out a significant portion of the wheat crop in Punjab this April. Nor are they responsible for the disaster relief necessary to cover a thousand families in Balochistan due to unseasonal snow, rains and flooding this February.
They are, however, responsible to ensure Pakistan’s documentation and compliance of international environmental agreements, and to represent the country in the numerous technical and other meetings in relation to them. But the present government’s austerity regime means that the teams representing Pakistan at climate and related UN meetings are unbelievably under capacity.
The response to the climate crisis is one that is very much a provincial responsibility, but after nine years since the 18th Amendment, no province has adopted a climate policy. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab may have draft policies ready, but neither have been approved by their respective cabinets.
Right now, provincial politics is everywhere but on the climate crisis. And in my experience, lack of provincial action on climate change is in large part due to the existence of the Ministry of Climate Change at the federal level. “If there’s a federal ministry and a law and policy,” say the usual suspects at the provincial level, “why should we interfere?” To date, there is no mechanism of coordination between the federation and the provinces when it comes to the implementation of international environment agreements.
The end result is that we’ve been unable to carve out a local understanding of how our climate, environment and economy are linked. One can tell by the flavour of climate protests in the Global North versus in the Global South.
Because of the Principle of CBDR, developed countries are responsible for mitigation over adaptation. Protests there look towards the bad guys: the historical greenhouse gas emitters and their beneficiaries. They direct their ire to the politics and the politicians who let these robber barons mint money generation after generation while polluting the entire earth with their greed.
The climate discourse in Pakistan doesn’t have any bad guys other than those in the Global North. The discourse here, stratified and technocrat that it is, does not speak any local language. In any event, the Principle of CBDR has allowed for blame to entirely be cast outside our borders. You can notice this when conversations about climate change inevitably turn into what to do about industrial and plastic pollution — both environmental issues. And trees. There will be lots of talk about planting trees. But climate change is not central; it's something that the developed countries are responsible for, and we are in compliance with the Paris Agreement.
We’re told that the major impact of the climate crisis will befall the water sector, that we are already water scarce and heading towards a water emergency. If this is so — and there is plenty to suggest we’re not running out of water, but bear with me — then a fair question to ask would be, where does all that water go?
The water resources of Pakistan are the monsoon rain, summertime glacial melt and reserves of groundwater. This water, we are told, is mostly consumed in agriculture. Some people even quote the figure of 90pc of annual water resources being diverted to agriculture. This may or may not be true, but it serves as a good means of contextualising the debate.
The country's major crops are rice, sugar, cotton and wheat. It takes more than 2,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice, and we produce upwards of five million tonnes of rice each year. Here’s the rub: Pakistan exports more rice than it consumes locally. So if we’re running out of water, the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan hasn't gotten the memo.
Sugarcane, which is heavily subsidised already, is a famously thirsty crop. And the sugar business is Pakistan’s largest after the textile industry. One of the by-products of sugar — ethanol — is highly valued as food-grade alcohol abroad, and just last year the 18 distilleries operating in the country exported about $425 million worth of product globally. If we’re running out of water, someone should ask why the Islamic Republic is allowing the repackaging of its 'scarce' resource as ethanol to be exported for private profit.
It takes nearly 8,000 liters of water to produce a pair of blue jeans. One can run this exercise through all of our high-value or export items, including non-agricultural products (especially leather and cement), and get the same result. If we’re running out of water, it isn’t because the water is running out. It’s because water is being consumed by a handful of industries that are making riches exporting their product to other countries. We’ve got plenty of water, and it’s making a handful of people rich.
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An understanding of the climate crisis through the lens of the Pakistani economy is what’s needed: an articulation of the extreme poverty we face as a nation if our economy is waylaid, as it was in Mozambique last year, by unexpected and unprecedented climate events. But we won’t get to such discourse if, every time there’s a serious discussion on climate change, it gets waylaid by a casual remark about the CBDR.
It’s time to re-examine the approach we've evolved on climate change in Pakistan. It’s time to seriously re-examine all the policy positions we’ve taken for granted. The climate crisis is real and it is upon us. So while Pakistan must develop a foreign policy that allows it to seriously negotiate climate finance while holding developed countries to account for their historical role in polluting the earth, Pakistani institutions must understand that the climate crisis is not something the Ministry of Climate Change can save them from and that we have a responsibility to take serious measures to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
This may take the form of improving fuel quality. It may take the form of changing agricultural practices. It may take the form of reducing our meat consumption. But we cannot continue thinking that climate change is not our problem.
Illustration by Mushba Said
Are you an environmentalist working in Pakistan? Share your insights with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ahmad Rafay Alam is an environmental lawyer and is currently a member of the (never convened to date) Pakistan Climate Change Council. He Tweets @rafay_alam
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