July issue 2017

By | Environment | Published 7 years ago

The countdown has already begun. Pakistan’s 5000 glaciers are retreating faster than in any other part of the world according to the Pakistan Economic Survey of 2014-15, and hence depleted freshwater resources. In 2010, the country was hit by unprecedented ‘super floods’ — described as a slow-moving Tsunami by then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon — that affected more than 20 million people from the north to the south of the country. In June 2015, there was a killer heat wave in Karachi in which over 2000 people died. A prolonged drought in Tharparkar, cyclones, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), intrusion of saline seawater into the Indus River Delta region — Pakistan has faced all this, and more in recent years, as a consequence of climate change, which is burdening an already fragile economy.

Although Pakistan contributes less than one per cent to greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, with very low technical and financial capacity to adapt to its adverse impacts. This poses a serious challenge to its economic and social development. The effects are already evident in the form of growing frequency of droughts and flooding, increasingly erratic weather, reduction in freshwater supply and the alarming and rapid loss of biodiversity. More critically, Pakistan is vulnerable due to its agro-based economy. There is some evidence, for example, as pointed out by Dawn columnist, Hajrah Mumtaz, that the traditional seasons for sowing and reaping crops and fruit is shifting, but “this is barely being discussed at policy level, despite the existence of a ministry for climate change…Our polluting practices, including our inability to curtail the use of polythene or to treat sewage or industrial effluent, is damning.” And, while the rest of the world is trying to move away from coal-fired power generation, “Pakistan is still in the process of setting up coal-fired plants.”

All these events constitute significant impacts of climate change. But is anyone paying attention?

Is it time to forget about climate change? Donald Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement could be the wake-up call we all need. Perhaps just focusing on climate change per se tends to cloud our judgement to larger social and moral obligations. Yes, climate change is real — numbers don’t lie; there has been an increase in hydro-meteorological (HM) disasters in the last 10 years, killing thousands in South East Asia, North America and the Caribbean. And yes, there has been an increase in CO2 levels in our atmosphere as a result of anthropogenic processes (changes in nature brought about by humans). But maybe it’s time to focus on protecting people from the devastation wrought by freak weather events rather than attempting to fight an unwinnable battle (getting countries to agree to cut back on greenhouse emissions etc). And that’s where climate justice comes into play.

So, what is climate justice? In a nutshell, it means justice for those most affected by climate change, especially those who have no voice to represent themselves. This new branch of the climate change debate has emerged as a result of assisting the most marginalised and been classified by scholars as ‘climate justice.’ Strategies to implement climate justice range from grassroots action to governmental level policy-making. However, the strategies will only work if they are closely interlinked. Developed for implementation in Africa and Asia, climate justice focuses on community education and solidarity as the key formula to surviving the wrath of climate change. Factors not even considered previously are going to have a significant impact on who will be most impacted by climate-related events. For example, sexual inequality in some countries is leading some experts to believe that women in general suffer more due to climate change: in the recent floods in Bangladesh, many of the women suffered much more than men as they did not know how to swim. Additionally, women are more exposed to fatal water-borne diseases such as malaria whilst collecting water, a duty almost exclusively fulfilled by women. Poverty is going to be the deciding factor in who suffers the most.

What practical steps are being taken to implement climate justice? The debates on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009 and Durban in 2011, show that the developed nations are slowly coming to an understanding, if not acceptance, of the consequences of over 100 years of unbridled industrialisation on the environment and on the ecosystem. The agreed Kyoto Protocol, which came into force in 2005, signed on by 192 parties, flawed though it may have been, was the correct initiative. Countries such as the USA did not sign on, and neither did the worst contributors to structural climate change in the 21st century — China and India. Now, after the Doha amendment, those nations that have not signed on to the current agreement, have voluntarily pledged to reduce emissions. But this is still very unclear and, most importantly, not legally binding.

In a fascinating, though chilling, article on ‘How Western Civilisation Could Collapse,’ on the BBC website on April 18, the author Rachel Nuwer, has quoted studies that posit two main factors — ecological strain and economic stratification — that can lead to a doomsday scenario. As history has shown, it is usually “a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse…and humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path.” The question is how close are we to the end?

Leaving aside the economic aspect, which may lead to a collapse on its own — Safa Motesharrei (a systems analyst at the University of Maryland, who uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse), says that there is an optimum population level that an environment can sustain. However, “If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable…(avoidable only) if we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution — all perfectly doable things.”

And that, unfortunately, is exactly what we will not do. We, or our leaders, lack the political and psychological capabilities to take the tough decisions. In the same article, according to Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, “The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual. The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.”

What does this mean for Pakistan? Where does Pakistan stand in this climate justice debate? Quite frankly, the government, let alone the population, hardly knows or cares about climate change issues. On a recent visit to Karachi, when I spoke to people about climate justice and its relevance to society today, most were unaware of the issues. And this, despite the fact that a 2015 World Bank study on Sustainability and Poverty Alleviation, estimated that environmental degradation is costing Pakistan nine per cent of its GDP — and in Sindh, the cost is believed to be as high as 19 per cent. Additionally, with 70 per cent of Pakistan’s population expected to be living in seven big cities in the coming decades, investment is needed in low carbon development — i.e. low carbon mass-transit systems and energy-efficient building codes.

Interestingly, Pakistan was the first South Asian country with a dedicated Ministry of Climate Change in 2012 that successfully developed the National Climate Change Policy, followed by the Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy (2014-2030). This fits in with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2015-2030, specifically Goal 13, which calls for ‘urgent actions to combat climate change and its impacts.’ SDG 13 underscores the need to strengthen the link between development and climate to promote climate compatible development agendas. Unfortunately, as is the pattern in Pakistan, despite very pertinent policy decisions, there has been little sharing. Federal ministries, as well as provincial ministries and departments, are barely aware of a climate change policy, let alone being able to implement it.

However, all is not lost. The census this year, for the first time, included the disabled and transgenders as a separate category — an indication, I feel that Pakistan is ready for change. Also, despite a poor showing in the Human Development and Gender indices, new government policies are being implemented countrywide that aim to improve living conditions of the poorest communities, balance gender rights and improve educational services. This also entails improving the health care system and providing better access to basic services. The difference between the UK (where I live) and Pakistan — a developed (rich) vs a developing (poor) country — in terms of climate change, is that the British, bolstered by their infrastructure and efficient systems, do not, as yet, feel any change in their daily lives, while Pakistanis complain constantly about the humidity, the rainfall or lack of it, and the overall lack of resources and knowhow to deal with freak meteorological disasters.

If Pakistan is to survive the climate change Armageddon, it will have to accept its reality and look within. Climate justice is the answer, looking at the ethical and environmental factors. It can be done; solutions can be found that benefit both Pakistan and the surrounding countries. Failing to do so will undermine its ability to achieve Vision 2025 — Pakistan’s development blueprint. And as someone who considers Pakistan my heritage, I would hate to see a vibrant country and its people be devastated by climate change when an alternative outcome is possible.


Note of Discord

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Accord could prove costly to climate justice progressions. 

In yet another shocking announcement, though not completely unexpected, given his level of understanding, President Donald Trump announced on June 1 that the US — the world’s second biggest producer of carbon dioxide (CO2) — would withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Change Agreement as part of his campaign promise fulfilment. According to the World Resources Institute in 2011, the US ranked second in greenhouse emission percentage, trailing China by a matter of points.

This will make the US one of only three nations in the world that will not be signed up. The other two are Nicaragua, which does not find the requirements stringent enough, and Syria, which is engaged in a deadly conflict.

However, as with all other impulsive orders passed by Trump’s wrecking ball administration, this one too, has run into massive opposition within the US itself. “Americans will honour and fulfil the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up — and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us,” contends billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, who now serves as the United Nations special envoy on cities and climate change. He pledged $15 million to support the UN agency that helps countries implement the agreement. Already dozens of cities in the US have pledged commitment to the Paris climate accord, with at least 86 mayors signing a statement to that effect.

Although, as the Guardian says, “The Paris climate change agreement will survive Donald Trump’s decision to pull out; it is a shock to the deal so painstakingly woven together after years of effort only 18 months ago. It is another indication of US readiness to abandon global leadership… There will not be immediate consequences for the planet, but the time available for effective action is already perilously short; even the threat of a backward step by the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases could carry serious consequences.”

The Paris agreement is not perfect, but it is intended to ratchet up slowly to achieve the target of holding global warming to 2C. It establishes a fund to help the countries most affected by climate change. Under the accord, the US had sent $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund, the body that coordinates international climate policy. The US was supposed to provide an additional $2 billion, but that is what Trump opposes and he plans to cut contributions to international climate programmes.

However, the Guardian says, on a hopeful note, “There is still a chance that the US will not, in the end, withdraw. The agreement’s built-in time delay means it cannot happen until the next presidential election year, 2020. From the immediate public condemnation of the move by Germany, France, Italy and China, (and many other individuals, organisations and countries), to the Vatican’s description of it as a slap in the face for the pope, it may be that this will galvanise the rest of the world.”

Climate change is barely on the tip of Trump’s tongue, let alone climate justice, and this Paris Accord withdrawal could prove costly to climate justice progressions. The true effects will not be known till the official withdrawal is confirmed a year from now. However, if Trump is serious about re-negotiations, all hope may not be lost.