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Pakistan’s climate crisis

Every year, we are seeing new undeniable climate events, clear evidence that accelerated climate change is here. Droughts are intensifying, oceans are acidifying and with the fast melting of the glaciers, we are now witnessing millions of climate refugees in the making.

Pakistan, one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, has not even done the bare minimum to make the climate change narrative mainstream, with economic and political instability in the country mainly hogging the spotlight.

Even after the historical 18th Amendment, which paved the way for provincial autonomy, the role of federal ministries is most important for introducing progressive legislation, and creating a well-structured umbrella for even provincial ministerial portfolios. In the last three and a half years, with the PTI in power, the federal climate change ministry experienced new lows. From being a cash strapped ministry to introducing initiatives for political point scoring, the real climate action narrative was nowhere to be seen. While the PTI government banked on the billion-tree tsunami project, we must understand that Pakistan cannot simply plant its way out of the climate crisis without constructive structural changes. Now with a new federal government, one must be hopeful for some effective changes. There are four areas which need to be urgently addressed.

First, the federal climate change ministry itself needs a major overhaul. In 2017, the PML-N government had introduced the much-needed Climate Change Act that vowed to formulate three vital sub-institutions: the Climate Change Council, the Climate Change Authority, and the Climate Change Fund, but none has been activated. There has been a lag of five years. The Act also stated that the “Climate Change Council will monitor implementation of adaptation plans under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)”. What’s more interesting is that the Climate Change Fund was supposed to be formulated to receive funds, grants and donations from various independent sources that kept transparency in the ministry. No records have been seen yet.

Second, the ministry must lay out its budget allocations with transparency and not politicize projects. While countries around the globe are quadrupling their climate change budgets in a bid to mitigate the climate crisis, Pakistan, under the PTI government, slashed the federal climate change budget by a shocking 34 percent in the 2020-21 federal budget. What was even more alarming was that 98 percent of the total budget was only dedicated to the federal government’s 10 billion tree tsunami project, which was itself marred by corruption, according to Supreme Court proceedings.

When questioned by Senator Sherry Rehman in the Senate debate in 2020, former state minister for climate change minister Zartaj Gul had no clue and resorted to blame-games.

With the climate crisis gaining momentum, rapid deforestation has been witnessed across the globe, from the Amazon in South America, tropical rainforests in Africa, to the green lands in Australia. In Pakistan, the story is quite similar as well. Despite the billion-tree tsunami project and being a signatory of the Bonn Challenge, Pakistan still has one of the highest deforestation rates in Asia. Our forest cover is still at only a minuscule 5.7 percent. According to UN standards, countries should at least have a forest cover of 10 percent of the total land.

Third, the federal government must make medium-long term strategies to phase out coal by the end of this decade. Renewable energy is not only good for the environment but also will help generate revenue in our fragile economy. At the same time, Pakistan must also build infrastructure for a smooth transition to electric vehicles (EV). For all of this to manifest, we need robust climate friendly policies. But awareness comes first, so the federal ministry has a big task to make the climate action narrative mainstream.

Fourth, the ministry must create an inter-provincial unit for a robust climate response across the country. Without national unity, Pakistan simply cannot mitigate ecological disruption. Since the climate crisis knows no boundaries, bold action is in the best interest of all provinces. With an effective inter-provincial unit, let the ministry show that through concrete action, Pakistan is truly committed to build a healthier, safer, sustainable and resilient future. Access to clean air and liveable climate are inalienable rights.

The PTI government had normalised polarizing debates. Now, as Pakistan moves towards healing, constructive climate action debates must take place with all stakeholders, including members of the civil society, present on the same table. Solving accelerated climate change is not a question of politics. This is now a matter of human survival.

Eric Shahzar, "Pakistan’s climate crisis," The News. 2022-04-26.
Keywords: Environmental science , Climate change , Climate events , Green lands , Glaciers , Tsunami , Zartaj Gul , Sherry Rehman , South America , Pakistan , EV , PTI