Elections 2024: Climate Change, Politics And Elections In Pakistan

Most mainstream political parties have now included climate change, the environment or related topics in their electoral manifestos, but largely, these issues remain promises on paper with little debate or action

Elections 2024: Climate Change, Politics And Elections In Pakistan

With the race for the 2024 general elections heating up, most political parties contesting polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have included the key issue of climate change in their electoral manifestoes.

This realisation amongst political parties about the importance of climate change and the environment was not always the case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Most parties barely included any mention of climate change or the environment in their manifestoes over the past decade, and some make no mention of it even today. 

As the general elections near, The Friday Times takes a closer look at how climate change has entered mainstream political discourse in KP over the past decade. Are political parties equipped to steer the province out of its current environmental crisis and climate change catastrophes?

Historically, the climate crisis has not been at the forefront of politics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or much of the country. That argument can be made today as well. But after a decade where environmental action became part of the mainstream political discourse, major political parties have either directly or indirectly included climate change and the environment as part of their electoral agenda. 

Climate crisis, politics in Pakistan's most biodiversity-rich province 

The electoral manifestoes of major political parties in KP for the 2013 general elections barely contained any mention of climate change in their manifesto.

The Awami National Party (ANP) mentioned "environment protection" while using words such as "biodiversity promotion" and "conservation" apart from calling for strengthening the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) later started a massive tree plantation drive as its environmental focus.

However, all competing parties, including the ANP, failed to put forth policies in their election manifestoes which directly addressed aspects of the climate crisis in the province. They also failed to raise environmental issues which KP had long been facing. 

After the 10 million tree plantation drive garnered massive attention for the PTI amid growing environmental crises in the province, party manifestoes ahead of the 2018 elections started to pay more attention towards climate change and environmental issues, particularly in KP. 

For the 2018 elections, five major religious parties, including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), came together under the banner of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA). However, their joint manifesto failed to mention the term "climate change" even once. However, the MMA manifesto did focus on the brewing energy crisis and the efficient use of water resources, recommending the construction of hydro projects, dams, and projects to harness air and solar energy. 

The manifestoes of nationalist parties, such as the ANP and the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), used the term' climate change' for the first time in their manifesto for the 2018 general elections. 

Both parties stressed the urgency of dealing with climate change in line with global recommendations and other agreements due to the Paris Agreement. 

Both parties called for strengthening the provincial environment protection body, controlling air pollution, promoting ecotourism, increasing forest cover, and coping with energy issues through small dams and alternative energy sources.

General elections 2024 and climate politics 

Traditionally, climate crisis has not been considered a primary theme for electoral manifestoes by political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This year, the religio-political party JI has taken up the environment as a key element for the first time.

Its manifesto cites an environment and tourism policy in its political agenda. The environmental aspect covers key areas such as environmental pollution, promotion of ecotourism, alternative energy sources such as dams, air pollution, and promotion of electric vehicles, and new legislation specific to environmental issues and forestation. 

Speaking to The Friday Times, former KP assembly member and senior JI leader Inayatullah Khan said that global warming has gripped the entire world while KP is more vulnerable to global warming. 

"Climate change is an interconnected subject, and JI work on this [subject]," he said, adding that if they are elected into government, they will not only closely look into climate change from a policy and legislative perspective but will also take to the world stage to hold countries accountable for harming the environment.

Inayatullah was asked how JI's policy differs from the traditional solutions to the climate crisis offered by most political parties in their manifestoes, particularly the PTI who led the government in KP for nine years, five with direct JI support. He explained that most political parties do not understand the gravity of the global climate crisis.

He claimed that the JI had devised a plan with certain policies to tackle climate change effectively.

Another key area that is ignored, Inayatullah pointed out, was that political parties have mentioned climate change in their manifestoes before, but they have all failed to generate meaningful and action-oriented debate on the assembly floor. 

ANP's Secretary for Youth Affairs, Tariq Afghan, told The Friday Times that they were the first party in the province to include climate change and environmental crisis in their electoral manifestoes.

He added that in its electoral manifesto for the upcoming general elections, the ANP has spotlighted all aspects of the environmental crisis and climate change, from conservation to nature-based solutions, sustainable transportation, environment-friendly tourism, alternative energy generation and protecting KP's flora and fauna.

Responding to questions about traditional solutions regarding the climate crisis, Afghan said the ANP has adopted an agenda which seeks to implement existing and new regulations to tackle the climate crisis. 

Commenting on policies adopted by ANP's political opponents, Afghan said the PTI, which was most recently in power in the province, had integrated climate change in its manifesto, but its government focused only on one environment project, the "Billion Tree Tsunami". He added that the project was not free of controversy. On the other, environmental action claims by PTI, Afghan asserted, were nothing more than claims. He pointed to PTI's much vaunted small dams and alternative energy projects did not have a practical manifestation. 

He argued that the government led by the PTI failed to adopt practical steps to cope with the province's burgeoning environmental and climate change crisis. 
As evidence, Afghan pointed to the air pollution in the provincial capital of Peshawar. "If they [PTI] were serious, the issue of air pollution would not arise like this where life expectancy has been cut by four years on average," he said.

Afghan said The EPA, included in ANP's manifesto for the 2013 general elections, has lagged in performance. He added that the PTI-led government did not strengthen the EPA and other environment-related departments.

ANP, he asserted, would focus on public participation, especially the youth and students, to contribute to subjects such as the climate crisis and militancy.

Afghan stated that these were the biggest issues in KP and that the ANP would take the lead in these issues in the province.

Even though Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has suffered from several climate-related disasters over the past decade, the JUI-F does not believe that climate change is a subject that needs to be a focus of their electoral manifesto. 

Their manifesto does, however, stress the greater use of natural resources.

Former national assembly member and JUI-F leader Shahida Akhtar told The Friday Times that new amendments to the party's electoral manifesto indirectly address climate change. She explained that the JUI-F will focus on natural resource distribution. Further, she pointed towards the steps the party took in its stronghold of southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to facilitate small dams.

With Pakistan facing an energy crisis, Akhtar said the JUI-F has put a spotlight on alternative energy sources such as solar and will look to reduce taxes on it. Further, the party will continue to work on small hydro projects while tackling pollution.

Akhtar stressed that JUI-F was a religio-political party focused on Islamic teachings of simplicity. "If we rely on luxury instead of simplicity, it will increase carbon emissions," she argued. Like Afghan, Akhtar criticised the PTI-led government for using a lot of state energy and treasure on the Billion Tree Tsunami project while projecting it as the only solution to the climate-induced problems of the province. She lamented that the projection of the BTT project came at the expense of other projects such as alternative energy. 

She reiterated that climate change was part of their larger political argument. In future, it will be formally included in their political agenda. 

The Friday Times tried to reach out to former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ministers from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to talk about their manifesto and past projects, but they could not be reached.  

Climate crisis in national public debate 

Since the 2013 general elections, major political parties of Pakistan, such as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have mentioned climate change and the environment in their manifestoes.

The PTI is well known for pushing a massive national plantation drive called the Billion Tree Tsunami (BTT). The PPP in Sindh, where it has ruled uninterrupted at the provincial level since 2008, has set multiple records for mangrove plantation along its coast. The PPP was part of the coalition government which oversaw the first Green Climate Funded Wetlands Recharge Project, worth $77 million, apart from setting up a carbon credits trading mechanism.

Fewer promises, more action

Environmental experts believe that promises made by mainstream political parties to tackle the climate crisis in Pakistan have not been fulfilled. These promises are scarcely mentioned in their public rallies during electoral campaigns, and consequently, most promises remain confined to manifestoes with no tangible manifestation.

Environmental lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam told The Friday Times that the manifestoes of major political parties do address the topic of climate change, but it does not feature prominently in the public discourse.

He mentioned how in 2022, Pakistan faced a climate change catastrophe in the form of floods, which affected a third of the country's land mass and around 33 million people, with more than 1,730 losing their lives. A World Bank assessment estimated that Pakistan suffered damage in excess of $14.9 billion, with total economic losses rising to around $15.2 billion. 

Alam mentioned that at the time, the national political debate focused on corruption and political cases, while news and discussion surrounding climate change hazards did not feature as prominently in the mainstream. 

"There is a fundamental disconnect between the climate crisis and what political parties are arguing about," he said, adding that a climate crisis was upon us. 

Lihaz Ali, a senior journalist based in Peshawar, told The Friday Times that he has attended several political gatherings, but he has yet to hear a candidate mention climate change and other environmental hazards while in public.

He said the issue of climate change has always remained anonymous in KP's mainstream politics even though major political parties of the province have included climate change in their respective manifestoes. He suggested that parties are not fully aware of the intensity and importance of the climate crisis.

Ali claimed that debates on coping with climate change had not been translated into the structure for workers of any party. 

What makes the scenario worse is that while parties usually have a large cohort of legal experts, it is not the same when it comes to climate change or environmental experts.

Conceding that many questions remain about the BTT project and other ambitious projects for the protection of nature by the previous PTI government, Ali said that mentions about climate change by former prime minister Imran Khan helped inculcate debate on climate change in the public domain.

Ali, however, lamented that political parties have not raised the biggest challenge facing the province with regard to the climate crisis in their campaigns, nor have party leaders expressed a deep understanding of the climate crisis.

Asked how well party leaders truly understand the unfolding climate crisis, Inayatualah Khan said that, unfortunately, leaders of political parties do not generate debate on this subject.

Afghan said their parliamentary leaders have basic knowledge about climate change, adding that in the past, some government ministers have attributed discussions on climate change impacts as foreign-pushed agendas.

Afghan said this lack of knowledge about climate change among parliamentarians and political parties is to be expected, explaining that the issue has only recently emerged on the global stage. However, he stressed it was important enough for leaders of all political parties to treat it as a priority political issue.  

Alam said that political parties, in their manifestoes, have not been able to offer any solution to the magnitude of the impacts of climate change on the country. 

Every year, there is flooding, and the air pollution in Lahore worsens primarily due to greenhouse gases, he said, adding that the manifestoes of political parties have been recommending the same solutions for the past two decades, such as planting trees or building dams.

"We witnessed the world's hottest summer this year. If heat waves become frequent, where will the people hide? And how can we grow our crops due to the hot climate?" 

Alams stated that Pakistan is currently in the throes of climate crises; citizens face dangers that we do not even know of yet. He said our politics needs to be more responsive to our region's evolving climate and its impact.

Ali claimed that leaders of political parties need to understand the significance of the climate crisis and address it in their manifestoes. Ali believed that as long as those involved in polluting the environment keep backing politicians, they will not be able to debate the climate crisis.

Green candidate

While political parties struggle to answer how they can be more green, one independent candidate contesting the upcoming general elections has come forward as a 'green' candidate.

Karachi-based Ahmad Shabbar, who runs the environment-focused Pakistan Maholiati Tahaffuz Movement political movement and The Environmental - an environment-oriented platform, filed his papers from PS-110 in Karachi.

His constituency lies on the coast of the Arabian Sea, whose beaches were once tainted black from the spill of the Tasman Spirit. 

His manifesto includes water security and supply, waste management, inspiring faith in climate action, wildlife and animal care apart from parks and recreation and community-based actions.

Asif Mohmand is a multimedia journalist based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He can be reached @AsifkhanJmc