Spring-ing into climate action

Pakistan’s diverse contexts demand a nuanced approach to climate action

Spring-ing into  climate action


pring is around the corner, so are all kinds of tree plantation drives. And why wouldn’t they be? We’ve all heard the saying: plant a tree, save the planet. Sounds easy and, more importantly, relatively cheap compared to some of the more technology- driven alternatives.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While trees are definitely climate heroes, a new study shows they can’t be the lone rangers in our fight against a warming planet. We still need to kick the fossil fuel habit because that’s the real culprit behind the rising temperatures. This might be a bitter pill to swallow for car enthusiasts, but there’s still hope for hydrogen combustion.

Nature restoration, even if perfectly executed, will only shave a measly 0.18°C off global warming by 2100 - a far cry from what’s needed. While planting trees is excellent, it’s not a magic bullet. Ignoring fossil fuels, the real culprit, leaves us on a scorching path far exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goals.

The idea of nature restoration, however, has sparked a boom of tree plantation projects around the world, supported by attractive carbon incentives. However, the amount of carbon that a plantation can sequester depends on many factors, such as the type of trees, the history of the site, the climate and the management practices. Not all tree plantations are good for the environment and society. Some of them may even cause more harm than good. Therefore, we need to be careful and assess the risks before we start planting trees.

We also need to adopt an integrated approach that considers the ecological and social impacts of tree plantation. In short, we need a diversified climate action plan that includes tree planting as one of the components, but not the only one. Only then can we achieve our goals of carbon neutrality and climate change mitigation.

Ignoring nature’s power in the climate fight is irresponsible. Restoring and protecting nature can contribute over a third of our emissions reduction goals by 2030 – not a fantasy, but a scientific fact. But let’s be clear: nature is a partner, not a saviour. Nature is our ally, not our enemy, and we need to invest in it as much as we do in clean energy and technology. Electric vehicles, synthetic fuels, renewable energy, alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen combustion, hydrogen fuel cell and thorium-based nuclear energy can account for the rest of humanity’s efforts to avert societal collapse via climate change.

The idea of “nature restoration” holds great promise in addressing environmental challenges, but we must tread carefully. While the term encompasses a wide array of activities, not all approaches are equal. One practice that demands scrutiny is monoculture tree plantations, which may inadvertently harm nature rather than restore it. The Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa spanning the years between 2015 to 2018 with a follow-up project in the form of The Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme launched in 2019. Both initiatives saw success in increasing forest cover but faced criticism for neglecting social aspects and prioritising quantity over biodiversity. They were deemed ambitious, and concerns existed, indeed still exist about monoculture planting, potential harm to existing ecosystems and limited impact on fossil fuel dependence.

To achieve successful reforestation, we must prioritise holistic ecosystem restoration rather than pursuing only carbon sequestration. Emulating the intricate balance of natural forests is essential to fostering resilience in the face of climate change. 

Monoculture tree plantations can have unintended consequences. These large-scale plantations, composed of a single tree species, can lead to the destruction of biodiversity and disrupt natural ecosystems. Native flora and fauna suffer as these plantations replace diverse habitats, undermining the intricate balance essential for a healthy environment. The negative impact of monoculture tree plantations extends to pollution and soil degradation. Chemical-intensive practices in these plantations can harm the surrounding environment and compromise water quality. Erosion and nutrient depletion further contribute to ecological degradation.

We don’t have to look any farther than the Changa Manga forest, which, once diverse, has undergone monoculture pine plantations, leading to biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and vulnerability to pests and diseases. Additionally, eucalyptus plantations in various regions of the country have raised concerns about water depletion, displacement of local communities and limited ecological benefits.

It is important to differentiate between replanting monoculture and genuine reforestation projects. The former merely focuses on harvesting and does not contribute to biodiversity restoration. True reforestation necessitates the reintroduction of entire ecosystems, including diverse native tree species and wildlife. The Sarhad Rural Support Programme’s community-based forestry projects, as an example, promotes planting native trees while considering social and economic needs, leading to sustainable forest management and improved livelihoods. Similarly, indigenous communities in Gilgit-Baltistan use traditional knowledge for sustainable grazing practices and natural forest regeneration, contributing to ecological balance in the region.

To achieve successful reforestation, we must prioritise holistic ecosystem restoration rather than pursuing only carbon sequestration. Emulating the intricate balance of natural forests is essential to fostering resilience in the face of climate change. The IUCN’s Mangroves for the Future project in Sindh focuses on restoring degraded mangrove ecosystems, providing coastal protection, in concert with carbon sequestration, and supporting local communities. Likewise, wetland restoration projects in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa aim to revive vital ecosystems essential for flood control, water purification and biodiversity conservation.

Businesses can play a critical role in promoting meaningful discourse around reforestation efforts. By adopting sustainable practices and investing in genuine reforestation, companies can contribute significantly to nature restoration and environmental preservation, such as Engro Foundation’s Billion Tree Plantation Drive, which engages communities in planting native tree species while providing them with training and giving them livelihood opportunities. Or we can take a glance at Sadaf Suleman Textiles’ tree planting initiative, which focuses on restoring native forests in partnership with local communities, all the while improving soil fertility and water availability for cotton farming.

We need to expand our investment in renewable energy as Pakistan holds immense solar potential. The thriving adoption of home solar, with and without battery storage, is a testament to this claim. Now, we need only to develop our infrastructure and policies to support this transition. This goes hand in hand with the recent efforts by the government to promote energy-efficient appliances and industrial practices that can significantly reduce fossil fuel dependence and energy losses.

Pakistan’s diverse contexts demand a nuanced approach to climate action. While reforestation plays a crucial role, addressing fossil fuel dependence and adopting holistic ecosystem restoration are equally vital. By learning from both successes and failures, we can contribute to a sustainable future for ourselves and the planet.

The writer is a researcher associated with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute

Spring-ing into climate action