Climate catastrophe

Published May 9, 2021
The writer is a researcher based in London.
The writer is a researcher based in London.

AMIDST international alerts about the impacts of climate change — from extreme weather patterns, to most recently, the introduction of viruses that jump from animals to humans — Pakistan’s actions have made it an important, if not celebrated, case in international policy discourse. But coherent policy and adaptation to climate change does not only consist of tree planting or setting up a Ministry of Climate Change. It will require a mix of social and economic policymaking around emissions and fossil fuels, and an effort to change attitudes and practices.

Pakistan can ill afford to see itself as a victim of rather than as a contributor to climate change. Meeting commitments of the COP26 process will require significant changes that will reap long-term benefits. This government must make changes to prioritise its own interests and to protect those most vulnerable in our society to climate change.

A little context: half of Pakistan’s energy mix of 25 per cent hydel and 65pc oil and gas (much of which is imported) is consumed by households (keep in mind the 50pc loss in transmission). Importing fossil fuels for transport and household consumption of energy is costly and has deleterious environmental impacts. Though the cost of oil has fallen to about $3 billion in the Covid era, the energy mix (and by implication, household consumption patterns) in particular is not sustainable.

But is coal the answer? Aside from imported fossil fuels including RNLG, CNG, LNG, and dwindling domestic natural gas resources, Pakistan has attempted to fill the gap by setting up the capacity to mine and use coal. A quick global look at the sector tells us that clean or refined coal is expensive and may not be very effective. Carbon capture is also costly to set up. Only 19 facilities in the world currently are online, most of them in the US where the federal government is supportive of coal capture. Though there is an argument to be made in favour of techniques such as scrubbing, washing or capturing coal, they still produce emissions, and push Pakistan away from meeting its climate goals of cutting emissions by 20pc.

Pakistan must be weaned off its addiction to fossil fuels.

A comparative look at government policy offers insight. The UK has gradually shifted from reliance on coal, oil and gas to renewables and 2021 was the first time in the country’s history that power was mostly generated by renewables — albeit for a short period. Policies and investments have spurred the shift in the energy mix; meanwhile, household energy demand has steadily decreased. But Britain still has a long way to go to meet its carbon emissions targets.

Wind, solar, and biogas are critical infrastructure required to wean Pakistan off its addiction to fossil fuels. At the moment, they make up 4pc of the country’s energy mix. Neither are cheap, but prices are falling and they help meet the country’s goal of using 60pc clean energy by 2030.

Transport and industrial policy will have to push for change quickly. For example, transportation standards have to be taken up from Euro 2 to Euro 6 as in other countries, and taxes could be considered as in The Netherlands that has a 68pc tax on unleaded petrol. Also, municipalities have imposed restrictions on certain vehicles to stimulate alternative forms of transport as Paris has, creating incentives and making it safer for travel over short distances.

Some of the changes in other parts of the world are occurring thanks to cultural shifts and ways of thinking about society’s relationship with the environment. In Britain, media, public attitudes and habits are leading to noticeable changes particularly in trends in buying local, buying ethically and factoring sustainability into purchasing decisions. It is not a coincidence that these changes are more visible now. In 2009, Britain began to shift from a heavily fossil fuel-dependent economy to one that is increasingly based on renewables.

The unfolding catastrophe across the world is not purely the making of China, the US and India — the world’s top polluters. Every country bears responsibility and Pakistan will need to recognise its contribution to climate change and resolve to tackle it. Research suggests Pakistan might have been the second most polluted country in 2018. Poor air quality, local fossil fuel consumption, the conversion of agricultural land into housing colonies, deforestation, and the dumping of waste and effluent into rivers and the sea are but a few examples that should raise alarm bells.

Making a commitment to be part of this year’s COP26 in Glasgow means policies and investments must be pursued. Fulfilling its commitment will garner more attention in diplomatic circles earning Pakistan some much-needed political capital. But more important is its responsibility to its own citizens who are losing their land, livelihoods, and their lives because of the man-made catastrophe that we call ‘climate change’.

The writer is a researcher based in London.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021

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