The Fault In Our Stars: Pakistani Policy Makers Cannot Totally Externalise The Climate Crisis

The Fault In Our Stars: Pakistani Policy Makers Cannot Totally Externalise The Climate Crisis
The recent flash floods affected 33 million Pakistanis. The estimated loss runs to around USD 30 billion with the notorious twins i.e. global warming and the resultant climate change, holding the primary responsibility. Unfortunately, using the argument that we emit less than 1% of global warming causing greenhouse gases (GHG), attempts are being made to externalise the issue by claiming that other countries are responsible for the damage. Even this number of 1% is not really something to flaunt around; it is, instead, only a measure of our rudimentary industrial development viz-a-viz those others. Also, while they are already on the path of correction since long; we appear to have learned nothing from their experimentation and mistakes.

This article is an attempt at understanding the entire issue in a holistic manner and its potential for affecting our lives in Pakistan.

Some basic details

To proceed further, it is essential to describe some of the terms used above, such as “greenhouse gases.” Growing plants in controlled environments is an established practice. Such spaces are known as greenhouses, where the plants and air are warmed by the sun rays and most of that heat remains trapped inside the house, keeping it warmed to the required degree for the necessary growth of the plants. The same principle operates in the case of the earth’s atmosphere. The sun heats it during the day and the heat is radiated back into the atmosphere as the earth cools at night. The said heat is absorbed by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which keeps the earth’s surface warm making it livable for us.

What serves as the most vital variable in this arrangement is the individual concentrations of the said greenhouse gases and their corresponding capacity to retain and radiate heat. Human-induced change in the concentrations has increased the said capacity; thereby increasing the atmosphere’s average temperature or causing global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide respectively account for approximately 79%, 16% and 6% of global human-caused emissions.

However, their potential to damage varies. Thus, while 40% of carbon dioxide still remains after 100 years, methane on the other hand persists in the atmosphere only for about 10 years. However, its global warming impact is 25 times that of carbon dioxide over 100 years. The same for nitrous oxide goes up to 300 times. Also, these gases cause warming. And warmer air holds more water vapour; thereby increasing their capacity to absorb and retain heat and thus adding to the warming caused by the GHG emissions. As a result of the above phenomena, between pre-industrial times and now, the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. The resultant global warming is causing heat wavesfloods, rises in sea levels due to melting glaciers and an increase in ocean temperatures etc. If left unchecked, the temperature increase may touch 2.4 degree Celsius by 2100.

Global response to the challenge

Population size, economic and industrial activity and a country’s associated energy mix determine all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. For example, 39% of the same result from burning of fossil fuels to provide electricity, heating and transportation. Some 25% result from agriculture and other land-use activities including deforestation alone.

Historically, simultaneous with the industrial revolution, we also observe a strong public mobilisation for environmental conservation all over the West. Even full-blown green movements and political parties had emerged by late 1960s and mid-1970s. The German Green Party even remained a coalition partner from 1998 till 2005. It was because of such awareness that since the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, environmental protection has assumed centre stage. The conference was followed by the Earth Summit in June 1992 in Brazil. During the same, the UN established an international environmental treaty. The resultant Kyoto Protocol implemented in 2005 defined binding emission targets for 37 industrialised countries. Also, in addition to offering to the developed countries the option of fulfilling their targets through trading of carbon credits with developing countries, they were also tasked through various frameworks to contribute to the costs incurred by the latter in meeting their environmental challenges. The Protocol was superseded by the Paris Agreement in 2015 with the primary goal of limiting global warming preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Pakistan’s response to the challenge

As per the Global Climate Risk Index of Germanwatch, Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most prone to the ravages of global warming and the associated extreme weather events. Still, we observe minimal sensitisation at any forum in this regard. For developing the required infrastructure adapted to such events, we require USD 7 to 14 billion per annum. We all know our own budgetary constraints; whereas accessing the funding options for those facing extreme climate patterns would require well rounded professional capacity – which we are acutely short of.

Only a few examples of this capacity constraint are shared in the following paragraphs.

By 2030, Pakistan aims to shift to 60% clean renewable energy, including enhancing the hydel capacity by about 50%, achieving 30% electric vehicles and a complete ban on imported coal, while focusing on gasification and liquefaction of the indigenous coal. The biggest question is again not the shortage of funds. It is rather: where is that professional capacity to plan and implement the above fundamental shift?

Entire institutions which have served in other countries as engines of such shifts are entirely missing here or staffed with non-professionals. Replacement of imported with local coal, its processing to produce clean energy, augmenting of the solar footprint to about 8% by 2030 in the energy mix, the fast-track augmentation of the hydel capacity etc. may remain dreams only until professionals are deployed in the driving seats for their implementation.

Nothing else describes our dismal preparedness for transition to clean energy than the Global Energy Transition Index of the World Economic Forum, by placing Pakistan at 104 out of 115 countries with a score of 49 with Sweden at the top with a score of 84.

Another parametre reflecting the attitude of a country towards global warming is the issue of when its GHG emissions peaked and started coming down or its future target for the same. While 19 had peaked by 1990; the number would reach to 57, covering 60% of the global emissions, by 2030. As for Pakistan; its GHG emissions increased by 140% from 1990 till 2017, and they are expected to increase by 300% till 2030 vis-a-vis their level in 2015. Similarly, we signed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000 with their targeted achievement by 2015. Increasing the forest cover was one of the main targets of the said program. However, Pakistan observed an erosion of 1% in the same from 6% to 5% during the period. India and China, on the other hand, respectively increased it from 22.7% to 23.8% and from 18.8% to 22.3%. No one would believe that we had started in 1947 with a cover of 33%.

What is to be done?

We are dealing with an existential challenge requiring intensive relevant knowledge, experience and capacity to lead. It can only be met effectively by giving due primacy to professionals. Moreover, we need an atmosphere of professionalism at the relevant forums in the country, and that too ASAP. Any margin for delay in responding to the threat has long ago ended for us.

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