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With the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (or Rio+20 as it is more commonly called) coming up this month in Brazil, there is much talk about the new green economy — but what exactly is Pakistan doing to green its economy? This was a question that was explored during the recently held National Consultation on Green Economy in Islamabad, in preparation for Rio+20.

In 1992 during the first Rio conference, known as the Earth Summit, Pakistan actually played an active role. In fact, it was one of the first countries to present a detailed National Conservation Strategy. As the chair of the G77 + China group of developing countries, it led formative discussions on Agenda-21 as well as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which were all signed at the Earth Summit.

Unfortunately in the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Pakistan has been slow to follow through on it commitments. The National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS) has been in the pipeline since 2004 and two drafts have been prepared and consultations held without finalisation. Now, according to Malik Amin Aslam who gave a presentation on the topic at the consultation in Islamabad, the NSDS is currently being finalised for launch at Rio+20. A country situation report is also being prepared.

It is actually a Millennium Development Goal for countries to integrate sustainable development into national policies but that has not happened in Pakistan as yet, while other countries in the South Asian region started doing this several years ago. In the past few months, several consultations on the NSDS have been held with government ministries, academia, civil society and businesses in all the different provinces and territories. According to Malik Amin Aslam, “the key suggestions and ideas have been incorporated into the base NSDS document and the final re-drafted NSDS is being presented to the advisory group for approval… The NSDS will be launched at a Rio+20 side event”.

Rio+20 is starting on June 20, so there really is not that much time left and one hopes the final document is in good shape. According to Malik Amin Aslam, “In Pakistan, the NSDS should be the defining pathway towards a green economy and will aim to conceptualise this fuzzy concept”. He added: “in its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive”. He further explained that “the concept of a green economy does not replace sustainable development, but there is now a growing recognition that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right”. For implementation, he proposed that: “the NCSD should not be a new body but that the Pakistan Environment Protection Council mandate should be revisited, revised and enhanced”.

From resource exploitation, Pakistan has to turn to resource efficiency and from depending on fossil fuels Pakistan has to turn towards developing renewable energy. It is a tough challenge, but other countries in the region are doing it, so what is our excuse? In fact, given our energy crisis and rising global fuel prices it is in our own interest to do this as soon as possible. Shakil Durrani, the Chairman of Wapda had earlier spoken about Pakistan’s hydropower potential, explaining that we had a total potential of 100,000 MW out of which 59,208 MW have been identified. Only 6,516 MW have been tapped so far while 1,557 MW are in process. In his view, the way forward was to make “a policy decision to improve the energy mix in favour of hydel and renewable generation for affordable power and to construct hydropower and renewable energy projects on a priority basis. Also establish water reservoirs on a priority basis to avoid water crises and establish underground water reservoirs on an urgent basis”. He also advocated the treatment of effluent water of LBOD/RBOD in Sindh and canal lining for water conservation.

Arif Alauddin, who heads the government’s Alternative Energy Development Board, explained that while “Pakistan is blessed with immense resources, it started late in tapping these resources”. India, for example, established a Ministry of Renewable Energy back in 1982. Pakistan is currently heavily dependent on imported oil, which is costing us around $12bn, which we really can’t afford (in 2015, this import bill will rise to $38bn). “We must encourage alternative energy options like wind, solar, hydro and biogas in Pakistan and implement the right policies,” he stated. “The grid code has been amended for wind and there are excellent rate of returns and a feed-in tariff for wind energy. We are preparing to do the same for solar and hydro as well”.

Pakistan has enormous wind potential, but since there was no investment by the government, the private sector was invited and a 49.5 MW wind project was set up in Jhampir in Sindh, which is now operational. “If the land is available, 1,000 MW can be added but we have land issues,” he noted. In biogas, there are two large projects in Pakistan at the Shakarganj and Moiz sugar mills that are converting waste into energy by producing gas for generation. Given the large number of sugar mills in the country, the excess energy produced could be added to the national grid. In solar, there is also huge potential, particularly in Balochistan, but there are no subsidies given to the solar sector as yet and that really has to change. In the meantime, solar streetlights, solar geysers and solar water pumps can easily be introduced. Farmers can use solar energy to pump out water instead of using the 3,000 MW sanctioned grid electricity for running tube-wells. Pakistan can also look into producing bio-diesel by growing plants like Jatropha — our diesel imports cost us around $4.5bn alone!

The options are numerous and viable, but the question remains: does the government have the will to act? “Why have they not encouraged hydropower and wind projects? There is no answer from the policy makers,” stated water expert, Arshad Abbasi at the consultation. “Private hydropower companies are ready to invest and provide energy but they are actively discouraged. Even a non-controversial dam like Munda Dam has not been started as yet. Why?” In Arshad Abbasi’s view, it is an issue of poor management and bad governance — and that just about sums up Pakistan’s dilemma. For change to happen, we need both vision (which the NSDS will provide) and the will to act (which might not be forthcoming).