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The climate conundrum

Climate change is one of the major challenges faced by the modern world. It is a peril that will continue to have an impact on our planet for the next 100 years or so.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is among the countries that are going to be negatively affected by climate change. Pakistan has persistently fallen victim to extreme weather conditions. This has been further exacerbated by poverty and scarce resources. Climate change has the potential to become a critical problem for Pakistan in the future.

In order to gauge the potential impacts of climate change on water resources, agriculture, health, energy, and other socioeconomic parameters, it is essential to obtain more information about climate variability. Moreover, it is imperative to predict the future climatic conditions of a region before planning mitigation strategies in an ever-changing climate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlines that for economies dependent on agriculture – such as Pakistan – the sensitivity to the threats of climate change arises from distinct socioeconomic, geographic and demographic factors that determine a country’s vulnerability profile.

A recent report by the World Bank has indicated the negative impacts on the living standards of people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka due to changes in weather conditions in South Asia. The study conducted on future projections of climate change confirms Pakistan’s vulnerability in this regard.

According to a study conducted by the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC), the average temperature in Pakistan has increased to 0.5 degrees Centigrade and the extreme temperature increase has been between 0.7 degrees Centigrade and 0.8 degrees Centigrade over the past 50 years. The research shows that it is projected to rise to between 1.5 degrees Centigrade and two degrees Centigrade, and between three degrees Centigrade and 4.5 degrees Centigrade based on the representative concentration pathways (RCPs)-4.5 and RCP-8.5 emission scenarios in the 21st century.

The RCPs describe the 21st century pathways of greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations and air-pollutant emissions. RCP-4.5 represents stabilised greenhouse gases emissions while RCP-8.5 signifies very high greenhouse gas emissions over time. In addition, the annual mean precipitation is projected to increase across the entire country, with the maximum level of rainfall being shifted towards the north-eastern parts of Pakistan. The monsoon season, which is vital for the agricultural sector, also shows a trend towards an earlier onset time, ie towards the end of June.

Another study by the GCISC on the future climatic changes in the 21st century in Pakistan depicts the highest increase in temperature in the northern parts to be approximately between three degrees Centigrade and 5.5 degrees Centigrade. This phenomenon is also referred to as elevation-dependent warming, which indicates that climate change is occurring in the north region with a higher intensity.

This increase in temperature is higher in spring and winter than it is in summer. With time, these changes in temperature have the potential to melt snow in the Upper Indus Basin (UIB) at a higher rate. This increased snow melt could lead to a high river flow that, due to the absence of any controlling reservoirs like dams and limited flood management systems, may adversely affect the UIB. As a result, there is a dire need to build new water reservoirs to conserve surplus water from glaciers to ensure food security, meet energy requirements, and eliminate the threat of floods.

Since the environment is intertwined in a complex feedback system, a change in one factor could ultimately disturb another. Vivid effects can, therefore, be seen in terms of floods, droughts, heatwaves and other climatic extremes. The 2010 floods, the prolonged drought in Tharparkar and Sindh from 2014 to 2017, and the heatwave in Karachi in 2015 reinforce the fact that Pakistan continues to be adversely affected by climate change. The future appears equally bleak.

Science has already confirmed Pakistan’s vulnerability to climatic extremes. Over the past 50 years, cold spells have been decreasing across the four provinces. Another comprehensive study on future climatic extremes by researchers of the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) shows the increasing risk in future extreme events in terms of intensity and frequency across Pakistan. The magnitude and frequency of temperature extremes is increasing – which may occur frequently in the future.

It is worthwhile to note that temperature extremes are devastating in the northern areas of Pakistan, with an increase of 4.8 degrees Centigrade. The monsoon region has witnessed a temperature surge of 4.5 degrees Centigrade while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa experienced an increase of 4.3 degrees Centigrade. These surges in temperature could further exacerbate glacier melts, render the monsoon spell unpredictable, and result in an increase in flash floods. Intense precipitation is expected in the monsoon region and the northern parts of Pakistan, which indicates that Punjab and KP are more vulnerable to climate change. In southern Punjab and Sindh, the vulnerability is high when it comes to agriculture and irrigation.

All provinces, therefore, need to take immediate steps to reduce this vulnerability. After the 18th Amendment, the subjects of the environment, food and agriculture have been delegated to the provinces. But experts believe that this issue is multidimensional and no province can handle it on its own.

Climate change is a pressing issue for Pakistan, even though its share in the global carbon trajectory is only 0.43 percent – which is negligible as compared to that of the developed world. As a developing nation, the only option available for Pakistan is to combat climate change through adaptation. Such strategies can help protect its vulnerable population from the phenomenon.

Pakistan should develop a climate-resilient infrastructure that can withstand unpredictable weather events. Such adaptive options could include climate-resilient irrigation systems; efficient water supply and sewage systems; upgraded watershed management; high-standard transportation networks; and sustainable infrastructure. These are referred to as hard mitigation options. Meanwhile, soft mitigation options entail awareness-raising activities, capacity-building trainings for locals through seminars and workshops, and increased support to the community.

Like other developing countries, Pakistan needs to incorporate a climate change agenda in the development sector. This can help to sustain our water resources, agriculture, forests and economy. It can also help in preventing disasters, and improving healthcare and sanitation through better planning and a long-term vision. Unfortunately, implementation and action by government institutions has not been as swift as expected. Although our country has a policy on climate change, there are major bottlenecks in its execution and implementation to date.

It has been a year since the Pakistan Climate Change Act, 2017 was approved. While the legislation has revived hope, the lack of political will has slowed down progress on climate action. No development has been made with reference to the National Climate Change Council. Though the environment and climate change has been institutionalised, it has taken time for these issues to gain acceptance. In this respect, the government’s approach has been inconsistent and has mostly been dependent on impromptu reactions.

The involvement of all stakeholders along with vertical and horizontal coordination efforts among federal, provincial and local government departments are vital to implement all policies and laws. Another challenge involves the lack of access to relevant information. In this regard, there is a need to improve data on climate change in Pakistan. With a responsible personal attitude, access to data, effective research, and a thorough implementation of policies and laws, we as a nation can competently confront the challenge of climate change.

The writers are researchers at GCISC.

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