Climate lessons from Covid-19

Updated 09 Oct 2020


The writer is an Honorary Fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research, Pakistan.
The writer is an Honorary Fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research, Pakistan.

THE world is in a bit of a mess these days. Yet, bright sparks of hope appear every so often. One of these sparks of hope was an online seminar I attended on Sept 22 on Pakistan’s Covid-19 response. The seminar was arranged by the Centre for Global Development, and consisted of a panel comprising Asad Umar, Sania Nishtar, and Reza Baqir. It was moderated by Masood Ahmed, the president of CGD.

But I am going too fast. Let’s take a few steps back and provide the context. I have worked on climate change issues since 1992. I was particularly privileged to be part of two teams between 1992 and 1994. The first was at the World Bank, which helped to set the world on a path towards increasing the share of renewable energy. The second was at the Global Environment Facility, where the concept of a price for carbon, as it is known today, or more precisely, for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, was created. These two ideas still remain fundamental to any climate policy discussion.

Since then, we have put more GHGs into the atmosphere, and the potential impacts of changing climate have worsened. Yet climate change is always discussed either as a global GHG reduction challenge or a managing local impacts challenge. When you look deeper, you discover that actually everything is connected. Just like the impact of SARS-CoV-2 (the tiny virus that causes Covid-19 disease) is linked with a country’s economy, healthcare system, cultures, and human behaviour, but also with what is happening with Covid-19 in all countries.

Hence there are important lessons that come out of the experience with Covid-19 that apply to tackling climate challenges. I highlight three lessons here. The first lesson relates to how best one can look after the most vulnerable who are affected by Covid-19 in our communities. If not, the incentive is to continue to go out and work so that one can feed one’s family, even if one is infectious. This means the virus never goes away, and much more drastic measures need to be taken.

The second lesson relates to how we can use data to take strategic decisions to contain the virus, so the number of people exposed and deaths are minimised. The third lesson relates to how we behave as a global community, sharing information and learning from other countries, so we can select and apply measures that make sense for our country.

Hearing about Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 made one feel hopeful.

At that seminar, I learned that Pakistan’s approach to manage Covid-19 was focused on health and livelihoods. The livelihoods discussed were those of the most vulnerable, the 24 million heads of households, supporting two-thirds of the population, who were living on daily wages or were self-employed. This is precisely what made Pakistan’s efforts so impressive: empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable of Pakistan’s citizens.

Asad Umar noted that in the process of taking action, the Ministry of Planning realised how poor data systems were for monitoring available hospital beds, number of Covid-19 patients and Covid-19 deaths and he described how his team used smart tech-based approaches, together with sending personnel to the field to reconcile numbers, to obtain accurate data. They also used existing systems, and applied AI and tech to identify high-infection areas, and initiate smart lockdowns, learning from South Korea’s experience.

Sania Nishtar and her social protection team’s efforts to build a system in real time to successfully deliver Rs12,000 in cash to each of the poorest 16.9m families in the country was completely inspiring. They worked across federal, provincial and union council boundaries, using an SMS-based request mechanism and a biometric payment system, to ensure money was delivered in a targeted manner to those who needed it most.

Hearing about Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 made me feel hopeful. After all, the same lessons can be applied to build a much stronger institutional set-up, unique for Pakistan, to help tackle changes in climate in a more upstream and strategic way.

The biggest missing piece for me in the climate policy dialogue in Pakistan has always been how they are going to help their own people cope with climate change, and ensure a growing economy. After all, Pakistan is expected to be the fifth most affected country by climate worldwide, according to Germanwatch’s 2020 report. There is an ongoing dialogue on water and climate in the country. Pakistan has also strengthened its disaster management institutions.

Equally important is to think of climate change as slow changes in the seasons over time. This way, one gets to a better realisation of its potential impact. Consistently increasing rainfall patterns in Karachi do not just lead to an occasional urban drainage problem, but a constant problem requiring that the appropriate infrastructure is put in place. Changing seasons also mean that the same crops may not be able to grow in the same geographical areas they have always grown. The insect population will also change: perhaps fewer bees to pollinate fruit trees or more abundant locusts.

Given the enormity of the climate challenge, where could Pakistan start? Again, learning from Covid-19, perhaps the first step would be to set up a ‘national climate steering committee’, similar to the National Coordination Committee, chaired by the prime minister with day-to-day responsibilities delegated to the Ministry of Planning.

This committee’s role could be to pre-empt and tackle long-term climate impacts so that potential negative effects on the economy and on livelihoods of the most vulnerable are minimised. Clearly, it would need to include chief ministers from all the provinces, representation from key ministries, such as water, power, agriculture, climate, social protection, as well as the National Disaster Management Authority, among others. Its mandate could even be expanded to identify economic opportunities. After all, climate is a global challenge faced by every country, and Pakistani expertise and solutions applied to domestic climate challenges could well end up being export opportunities.

Einstein said “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” Pakistan has clearly seized the opportunity to strengthen its systems to take informed decisions using data and technology, and to protect the most vulnerable members of society during a global pandemic. Can climate change help strengthen institutions even further?

The writer is an Honorary Fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research, Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2020