Pakistan Needs A Paradigm Shift To Address The Climate Crisis

Pakistan Needs A Paradigm Shift To Address The Climate Crisis
Pakistan is a nation plagued by 2 bad ideas.

The first is the idea that there is no hope, and that climate change is going to kill us all. That the long stubborn apathy of the elite has doomed us, and that no attempt to remedy it is within the realm of the possible. This climate doomerism, of course, is a lie. Given enough political, we can, as a nation, make the effort to fight back against the mistakes of our past, and prevent - or at least mitigate - the effects of the climate crisis.

The second idea is not only a failsafe for the first, but is also disguised as climate activism itself.  It is what I hope, primarily, to address with this article. The lie is that the key to mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis is to sit and wait for the science to science up better, greener technology, and to sit and wait for businesses to develop the incentives into using them.

The lie is that electric cars, solar panels, carbon capture, and carbon credits are going to save us.

The key to stopping the climate crisis isn't new technology, but in the breaking of the foundations that led us to this point. Not in green-ifying business as usual, but making meaningful changes to the economic order, or if required, overhauling it entirely.

But let's not put the cart before the horse here, let's tackle this bit by bit.

Modern society functions on one thing: growth. It does not matter how much money has been made, whether it be thousands, millions or billions, all that matters is that next quarter more needs to be made. If Apple’s share price goes down, or stays the same, then why invest in it? It might be worth hundreds, but that doesn’t matter to most people or institutions.

Growth, as expressed in GDP, is the cornerstone of global capitalism - that we must continue to grow, and that we must never stop growing.

From here, however, stem two key issues. The first is that in the pursuit of growth, all other things no longer matter, because the moment we stop growing, everything collapses.

Consider the rise and eventual dominance of cars as our primary means of transport. Prior to car ownership being the normal, city streets were for the people. Public transport would, in some places, line the center of the street. Every other spot was for walking or for biking.

Then, along came cars. Then they morphed into status symbols. So rich people bought cars, and eventually the middle class also joined the bandwagon, as prices fell. Now, cars require a few things. They need some sort of fuel to run, they need roads, they need factories and workers to build them.

As the car industry grew larger and larger, the industry’s growth became key to the growth of many nations. If the cars needed more space on the road, then the solution was to get rid of the sidewalks and the trams, which were operated as public goods or subsidized in most places.

Fast forward a couple decades, and we now have a massive multi-trillion dollar industry that is simply based off a flawed idea. Cars are possibly the least efficient and most polluting form of travel we could have possibly devised as a civilization, and yet the industry is so massive that eliminating cars would harm the millions of people whose livelihood depends on the automobile industry.

In the pursuit of growth, we have ignored the many benefits of public transport and space, and backed ourselves into a corner. We have fashioned our cities around cars; our culture revolves around cars. Every single depiction of the future displays some sort of futuristic car, because what is modern life without them?

The liquid stuff that powers cars – oil – is now an industry that makes up the vast majority of some nation’s economic revenue.

So now, when we ask “what do we do about the carbon emissions and pollution from cars?” we answer “electric cars!” instead of can we do better than cars? 

The second, more important dimension of this issue is that infinite growth on a finite planet with finite resources is simply not possible, and shifting to a different material to exploit from our planet is at best a band aid solution. Electric cars might not use fossil fuels, and don't emit carbon dioxide, but the batteries that power them use lithium. That lithium has to be mined, and then processed in factories. Those factories need energy, energy that comes most likely from fossil fuels.

In the face of this question, we loudly exclaim “solar energy!” Only so much of the world has enough sunlight to power their electricity grids off solar power. The majority, upwards of 95% of solar radiation, lands over the ocean. Even if the solar power was the only solution, how much lithium exists on the planet? Enough to last us maybe until 2030, and that's at current usage levels.

We need alternatives, and we need to detach ourselves from fossil fuels, but we also need to lower our consumption. We need to allow ourselves to be affected by the scale of the crisis that we are faced with, so that we have a shot at being here 20 years into the future.

There is only so much damage, so many resources we can rip from the planet before it all comes tumbling down, before growth becomes literally impossible. Juggling between the ways we pollute, and the resources we use is not enough. The mantra of unlimited GDP growth will ultimately exhaust the planet’s resources and leave it completely uninhabitable. This is to say nothing yet of the profoundly unequal ways that the benefits of economic growth are distributed among society.

Pakistan is at the frontiers of the climate crisis, and while many initiatives have been put in place to try and mitigate its harms, almost all of these initiatives fall into the same trap. The government promised the UNDP that it would turn 60% of Pakistan’s power generation to renewable sources, and that it would bolster the use of electric cars to 30%. These promises, while unfulfilled, will only lead us further down the same path, maybe until it is perhaps too late to change course.

As a nation stricken by innumerable shortages and crises, we simply cannot afford to get this wrong. Time is slim to none, as the climate crisis is no longer some distant event, but an active phenomenon in the present. The floods in 2022 were a stark reminder of this fact. We cannot throw money at projects that won't save us, when we won’t have the time, or indeed the ability, to backtrack in the future. We cannot sit around and expect to be unaffected by the wrath of humanity's past mistakes, hoping that stacking band aids on the wound will heal it.

If we are to do anything to prevent these calamities, anything to mitigate the loss of the millions of lives at stake, we must change the way we think of modernity. Change the way we think of the future.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is not paved with tarmac, and is not driven to with a car.


Sultan Khawaja is a student, writer, and an avid climate activist