Pakistan presents some of the most breathtaking landscapes, with glacier-topped mountain ranges in the north to the sea and desert in the south. But the same climatic and topographical diversity makes it among the top 10 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.
The last decade has seen Pakistan battered by the full force of nature’s wrath, with erratic rainfall triggering a devastating deluge in one year and causing severe droughts in the next. The unpredictability of global climate change, characterised by extreme events, has led to destabilised glaciers, cyclones, urban flooding, landslides and record-breaking heatwaves, which led to hundreds of deaths in Karachi in 2015 and produced sizzling temperatures. Against this backdrop and with the elections around the corner, it is time for political parties to address the risks of climate change and strategise solutions to tough climate-related problems.
According to the Paris Agreement, the global temperatures must not increase beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius to three degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as against the three degrees Celsius to six degrees Celsius rise in annual mean temperature projections for Pakistan for the same period under different scenarios. As things stand now, we have a one degree Celsius increase in temperature. But it is time to take some crucial decisions. While we may not be the chief suspects responsible for this state of affairs, the list of challenges confronting us is quite long.
The increasing temperatures are directly linked to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). These GHGs include the naturally-occurring gases – like carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour and nitrous oxide – and the synthetic ones – such as chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.
Due to the trend of global warming, the number of heatwave days per year has increased by nearly fivefold over the last 30 years. This may cause deaths, and impinge on water availability and agricultural productivity. The extraordinarily high summer temperatures are likely to also increase the demand for electricity and air-conditioning, bringing power generation under increasing stress.
In our case, the transport, energy and farming sectors, and waste are the largest contributors of the GHG emissions. The countrywide temperature profile is further complicated by massive deforestation across all regions.
Traffic emissions are a major source of GHGs and particulate matter. In many urban centres, the latter can be witnessed as a perpetual presence in the form of a thick layer of haze that complicates the respiratory sickness profile due to unchecked traffic emissions.
Pollution is often attributed to old vehicles. But it is critical to employ cleaner and alternative fuels to cut down on harmful emissions. Taxation regimes that favour cleaner fuels are an essential policy intervention that our political parties must focus on.
In the farming sector, cow dung and the use of flood irrigation in paddy cultivation are the biggest sources of methane and a strong trigger for temperature increases. Cow dung is often utilised for biogas generation and is being aggressively employed across the world as a renewable, cleaner and stable source of electricity. The IAEA energy forecasts cite the potential of bioenergy in meeting over a quarter of global demands for transportation fuels by 2050. Through political will, a favourable tax regime, and subsidies, biogas has the potential to overcome domestic fuel needs, provide multiple socioeconomic benefits to farmers, and slash GHG emissions.
The use of flood irrigation for rice cultivation is another major source of methane. A government policy that enforces a shift towards furrow and drip irrigation techniques would not only save water by as much 10 times, but would also reduce global warming.
A major reason for our high GHG profile is the incessant deforestation that has reduced forest cover to less than four percent. The accepted principle is to have at least 20 percent of forest cover to moderate weather conditions, normalise precipitation variability, increase moisture in the atmosphere by bringing temperature down, and cause cloud formation. In addition, it controls soil erosion and absorbs particulate matter.
In our country, the oil, gas and coal lobbies are quite influential in the policy circles. Oblivious to environmental concerns, several o power plants are employing coal, which has contributed to a smog in Punjab and other problems. The political commitment must be to bind the coal-power industry to control GHG emissions by installing mandatory filters and super-critical boilers to cut down harmful emissions. We also need to move towards a power mix and shun environmentally costly projects.
Alongside the coal power plants that emit noxious gases and smoke, brick kilns across Punjab burn old tyres as a cheap source of fuel, emitting thick black smoke that comprises GHG and contributes to the smog nuisance in Punjab. Aligned with this is the burning of the residue of rice and sugarcane crops, which has emerged as a major source of smog in Punjab as well as a source of glacial destabilisation. It is time for the provincial administration to help farmers remove agricultural waste from farms. A useful policy enforcement could be to use threshers that remove rice from the plant and run ploughs over it, returning nutrients to the soil as an organic fertiliser. The same treatment could be employed for the sugarcane crop residue.
Rising temperatures are causing glaciers to recede, which could make future water availability a serious challenge. Pakistan has over 7,000 glaciers spread across three mountain ranges: the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram Range. The glaciers across the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush are increasingly becoming unstable, leading to avalanches and flashfloods from the glacial lakes, which are formed as a result of enhanced melting – a phenomenon referred to as glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF).
The Ministry of Climate Change has recently identified that the number of glacial lakes have alarmingly increased to 3,000 from 2,400 in 2010 in and around Gilgit-Baltistan and parts of Chitral. The ministry reports that as many as 50 GLOFs that can burst from its seams “anytime”, wreaking havoc on people living in nearby villages.
The culprit once again are the rising temperatures due to GHGs in the atmosphere from traffic emissions – which are expected to rise to high levels with CPEC taking shape – and the wind cycle from Punjab in winter that are laden with GHGs emitted from the burning of crop waste. In addition, the wind flows from the eastern side, which is laden with carbon from the steel smelting units from across the border, can also be blamed for this. We pay a high environmental cost as carbon from all these sources settles on ice and stimulates aggressive melting.
The change in the snowfall patterns due to the warming tendency is hampering glacial development. Over the years, snowfall occurs right near the end of winter. While the snow has hardly started to consolidate and turn into a glacier, the summer season melts away the still-soft snow.
The threat to the glaciers can be controlled in the long term if deforestation is reversed by planting poplar and eucalyptus trees alongside the slow-growing indigenous pine species. A useful policy intervention could be to use the hydel-solar fuel mix to reap maximum benefits. In summer, hydel power generation could address power deficiencies. In winter, solar energy could meet heating requirements. The regeneration of forest cover along the CPEC route could also help absorb aggravated traffic emissions and offset harmful GHG emissions.
Another immediate and grave threat to glaciers is rapid urbanisation in the mountainous areas. This is a sensitive issue and a balanced approach to outlaw real estate is required in certain vulnerable areas. We must also develop small urban units with intermingled green zones to countervail the environmental damage.