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December 26, 2018

Catching up with the climate


December 26, 2018

Raging forest fires in California, lurking cyclones in the Arabian Sea and the deadly heatwaves are the many ways global warming is increasing poverty and disease as the global fossil fuel interest continues to hold the future of the earth hostage.

The global temperature has risen by an average 1 degree C caused by the heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted from fossil fuels. These fossil fuels have turned the atmosphere into a giant fire-breathing furnace, throwing the balmy seasons into kilter and triggering extreme weather events. Pakistan alone suffered from 141 such events from 1997-2016. While these events severely impacted both life and economy in the country, nothing has been done to try and fix the situation.

With lots of lip service, and the climate change ministry headed by a minister of state in two successive governments, we cannot even feign seriousness despite being among the 10 countries in the world that are most vulnerable to climate change. We have not undertaken any significant mitigating measures to keep climate change at bay nor have we prioritised schemes to seek global climate financing.

With emissions of the heat trapping GHGs highest in South Asia, the temperature in Pakistan has gone up by an average of 0.57 C, seriously affecting ours seasons. The changing seasons have also disrupted rainfall, snowfall and temperatures.

Previously, the duration of summer in Pakistan was spread over five months. But since 2002-2003, summer has stretched to 170 days, roughly six months. In the past, the months of March and April were mildly cold, but now March is getting increasingly warmer and acquiring the oppressive mid-year temperatures.

Consequently, winter has shrunk by 23 days and the onset of spring has similarly advanced by 23 days. Now early spring is no more rainbows and butterflies and chirping birds around azure and bottomless tree-lined lakes, stirring the imagination of a poet. Early spring now brings with it increasing levels of snow melting at the wrong places and the wrong times, accelerating glacial decay. There used to be heavy snowfall from December to January; this has now shifted to the end of winter. The delayed snowfall coincides with the higher temperatures of the early spring, triggering heavy melting of the snowpack and taking away with it any chance of replenishing the last season’s snow melt. Glaciologists report considerable decay in Pakistan’s overall snow cover since 1998. And this has grave impacts.

During previous instances of early spring, scientists reported a drop in the yield of the wheat crop, leaving the grain size smaller and raising serious concerns for future agricultural produce. These fluctuations are also seen to have throw into disarray the growth cycle of rice, which is the staple diet of millions in our region. Since the early 2000s, in Gilgit-Baltistan the advancing spring has also caused an early blossoming of fruit trees, which has in turn had an effect on the quality of fruits. Horticulturists too report the earlier blossoming of flowers much before the advent of the official spring period – from Feb 15 – across the country.

Trump’s US, the global face of climate denial, and Australia have been stubbornly breaching their Paris commitments. Global warming, though, continued to unleash hurricanes and forest fires in California and the Rocky Mountains. And the recent Sydney cloud burst battered the city with 102mm rain in just a couple of hours. Both Australia and the US, along with many others in the G20, are excessively relying on the coal industry and violating pledges made

in Paris climate conference in 2015 to cut emissions.

Pakistan’s increasing focus is also on deploying cheaper coal-intensive power stations to generate the estimated 49,000 MW power by 2025 to address its development and economic challenges. Outlawed in China, most of these plants will likely be using outdated and polluting sub-critical or super-critical Chinese technologies that can only add to our climatic woes. Foremost among coal-caused ecological disasters are punctured and contaminated aquifers during mining and the discharge of highly contaminated waste water in the surrounding environs. The Sahiwal coal power plant showcases the dreadful prevalence of serious respiratory diseases in the surrounding towns and villages.

The dropping cost of renewables across the world is a blessing for countries like ours, which must avoid environmental costs and adopt a healthy energy mix comprising solar-wind hybrids, hydroelectric sources, thermal energy, gas and cleaner coal technologies to stem the temperature rise and give our children a safer world.

The globally acclaimed UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has undeniably established the dire need to cut GHG emissions to prevent global warming from rising above 1.5 C ‘within 12 years’ (by 2030), to stop the “collapse of our civilisation and the extinction of much of the natural world”, as aptly put by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough at COP24, the most recent UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. The world is painfully slow at doing the needful regarding climate change.

COP24 agreed on a ‘rulebook’ to keep tabs on individual countries’ emission-cutting efforts, but could not draw a line on targets to cut emissions. The world may be hurtling on the path of devastating climate change with a 3 degree C temperature rise.

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