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Change in the air?

Pakistan is severely affected by climate-related devastation — floods, drought, food and water shortage. Scientists working with the United Nations have set the global goal to avoid these disasters including keeping a lid on global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above the 19th century average. All countries must reduce their carbon emissions, by switching from fossil fuels to green energy, a costly measure in the short run.

In 2014, China and the United States the two largest greenhouse gas-emitting countries pledged to cut their emission in the US-China accord which became the basis for the global agreement in Paris at COP21 in 2015. On April 22, 175 governments, including Pakistan, signed the Paris Agreement at the UN General Assembly.

Every country is now in the process of preparing their submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, its Nationally Determined Contributions — the actions, including laws and regulations they will be undertaking by 2023 to meet the target.Eschewing bad environmental habits should be a major goal.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change has also commissioned a study on the country’s greenhouse gas inventory. Increasing the greenhouse gas inventory will be the 10 new coal plants planned by the government before the 2023 reporting deadline. Bilal Anwar of the Centre for Climate Research and Development, Islamabad, posits that coal-based energy is unavoidable in the short term, but that the government should choose the latest, cleanest coal technology available.

While the Paris Agreement sets a global target, the UN has also been negotiating, parallel to COP21, on the specific goals, targets and indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals which should successfully help us achieve the global target. On Sept 25, 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif joined other leaders to adopt the SDGs 2030.

From 2014, environmental health advocates have worked tirelessly for strong air quality parameters to reduce air pollution and contamination of air by chemicals. They achieved their inclusion in the SDGs. These targets are crucial for South Asia which has the world’s most polluted cities with air-quality levels often four to five times the limits set by the World Health Organisation. The World Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim warned early this month that Asian plans to build more coal fuel plants would be a “disaster for the planet” overwhelming the Paris agreement.

Since the 18th Amendment and devolution in Pakistan, there has been no national coordination system on environment health. Now the Ministry of Climate Change has to use the global target instead.

The government’s Vision 2025 does include several of the SDGs, including major sections on renewable energy, while air quality is currently missing. The planning minister, Ahsan Iqbal, has said that Vision 2025 is a living document and will be up for review this year. Environmentalists should advocate with the ministry to ensure that the quality of air and measures to improve it are specifically delineated in the revised version.

Changing energy systems and bad environmental habits while difficult will benefit agriculture and the economy. Pakistan’s national accounts currently do not calculate the negative health costs of environmental pollution. The government should do an opportunity cost comparison — 2015’s direct cost in terms of respiratory diseases, working days lost, agriculture losses and how that compares to the cost of expanding green technologies that will get us to SDG 2030 and the goals of Paris.

Agriculture and agribusiness are the basis of Pakistan’s economy. While a similar study on Pakistan is currently not available, a recent US National Institute of Health study on Indian agriculture 1980-2010 shows potential losses from 36pc to 50pc in wheat production due to SLCP or short-lived climate pollutants.

The study reco­mmends regional anti-air pollution measures as air pollution crosses borders. What we call ‘fog’ in winter is actually ‘smog’ in India and Pak­istan. Pakistan’s latest figures on agricultural output are starting to show negative effects. Cotton output fell while wheat showed almost no growth.

Coal-fuelled air pollution crosses borders, even oceans; China’s position on coal changed after the state of California tied negotiations on trade to reducing coal-based pollution crossing the Pacific. Rand Corporation, based in California, did a study of the annual costs of air pollution in China.

Pakistan will have a similar opportunity to open a new track for negotiations with our neighbours in the July 2016 finance ministers’ meeting in Islamabad. India has 88 existing coal plants with many new ones planned. No air purification wall can be built along the border.

We should propose instead a joint Saarc commission to calculate the monetary value of air pollution and greenhouse emissions to each of our economies; review the results publicly and be open to changing our regional fossil fueled energy plans accordingly. The lives and livelihood of a billion and half people depend on it.

Shazia Rafi, "Change in the air?," Dawn. 2016-05-29.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social rights , Environmental control , Environmental diseases , Environmental law , Environmental pollution , Nawaz Sharif , Dr Jim Yong Kim , Ahsan Iqbal , Bilal Anwar , Islamabad , India , Pakistan , UN , SDG