More real than imagined

Since climate change is a matter of national security for Pakistan, our laws need to set clear milestones for climate change action

A recent climate report, Global Climate Risk Index 2020, published by Germanwatch, has made quite a splash in Pakistan. According to the report, more than 526,000 people have died all over the world, and losses of $3.3 trillion were incurred from 1998 to 2018 in 11,500 climate change-related factors. Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, according to the report.

Composite indices generally offer a broad overview and have been routinely found to give unreliable estimates. So a better way to understand what is going on in Pakistan is to have a more in-depth look into various components of the index.

The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index aggregates information on four indicators: climate change-related deaths, the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, the sum of losses in US$ in purchasing power parity (PPP), and losses per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). Each country’s index score is estimated from a country’s average ranking on all four categories.

Pakistan ranked 100th out of 183 countries in the Global Climate Risk Index for 2018. The most affected countries included Japan, Madagascar and India in 2018. However, Pakistan’s long term profile, which has created the media frenzy, is justifiably much more worrisome. From 1999 to 2018, Pakistan ranked 5th among 181 countries in terms of its vulnerability to climate change. Pakistan suffered 500 climate change-related deaths and economic losses of $3.8 billion due to more than 152 extreme weather events in the period from 1999 to 2018.

Some other estimates paint a much grimmer picture of Pakistan’s short-term vulnerabilities to climate change. Pakistan ranked among the top 10 most vulnerable countries to be affected by climate change, as per the Climate Risk Index 2019.

A recent episode of smog has once again brought into limelight our inadequate response to the looming environmental crisis. Smog level on the Air Quality Index (AQI) level between 250-300 is considered “hazardous.” Such a high smog level requires that the vulnerable population such as young children and adults with heart and lung diseases stay indoors. In the recent past, the smog level in Lahore crossed 550 marks on AQI. It was a disaster.

Some of the sources for this smog include vehicular pollution, industrial pollution, burning of municipal and industrial waste. Brick kilns are also notorious because they use dirty fuel, such as rubber tires. Crop stubble burning in India may also aggravate the problem, but key sources of air pollution are located within Pakistan. Sectoral emission inventory for the Punjab shows that the overall share of the transport sector in polluting the air is 43 percent, the percentage of the industrial sector is 25 percent, and the share of the agricultural sector is 20 percent.

The severe energy crisis that hit Pakistan in the first decade of the 21th century partially explains Pakistan’s extreme vulnerability to climate change. In the recent past, there was an exponential increase in reliance on coal for power generation in Pakistan. This shift to coal from the depleting local reserves of natural gas may be a significant factor in the increased diminution of air quality in and around urban centres and perhaps also the cause of the thick haze occupying our skies.

Increasing urbanisation caused by widening disparities in available economic opportunities in the urban and rural areas has put unprecedented pressure on the limited infrastructure of metropolitan cities.

What makes the issue particularly alarming is that more developing nations top the list of countries most affected by climate change, even if they are least responsible for this. One apparent reason is the geographical location of the developing countries, though other historical factors also make developing countries vulnerable to climate change.

As the planet warms, soil in areas near the equator will dry up, reducing its ability to dampen temperature swings. In contrast, countries in the northern latitudes, which are mostly rich, will not be affected nearly as much by changes in soil moisture. Far from the equator, countries will see smaller temperature fluctuations, because of changing atmospheric patterns. In terms of both means and variances, the countries that bear the most historical responsibility for climate change are likely to be the ones least harmed by its consequences.

If average surface temperatures reach 1.5°C or 2°C cap set in the Paris agreement, poorer nations — those located near the equator — will suffer the most from increased heat. The wealthy nations closer to the poles will be relatively immune to the increase in the global surface temperature. It is estimated that the most prosperous countries that produced the most emissions would be least affected by heat when average temperatures climb to just 2°C. However, poorer nations would bear the brunt of changing local climates and the consequences that come with them. The same is true even if temperatures reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Some experts believe that weak regulatory mechanisms in Pakistan are primarily responsible for its climate-related woes. A brief review of the climate-related legislation shows that we have no shortage of laws. It is the will and the resolve to implement these laws, which will make the real difference.

Pakistan has shown its resolve to effectively address the climate change issue as reflected by its commitment to international environment-related treaties. Whether it achieved what it sought to achieve is a different story. For starters, Pakistan first responded to the question of climate change in 1994 when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Convention was designed primarily to bring down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere. Pakistan ratified the Kyoto Protocol (KP) in 2004 and the Paris Agreement in 2016, both containing mandatory goals for the signatories. Pakistan Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1997. National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) was passed in 2012, followed by a Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy (2014-2030) and, most recently, the Climate Change Act of 2017.

The Act 1997 prohibits the discharge or emission of any effluent, waste, air pollutant, or noise in any amount, concentration, or level exceeding the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQs) or any other standards. Following this, the federal government promulgated the Pollution Charge for Industry (Calculation and Collection) Rules, 2001 which set out separate NEQ parameters for liquid effluents and gaseous emissions for the application of the charge. National Environmental Quality Standards (Self-Monitoring and Reporting by Industry) Rules, 2001 introduced a new system for industries to routinely monitor their environmental impact.

Why have climate-related regulations failed to achieve the stated objectives? The non-binding nature of the legislation, a disconnect with policies in other sectors, and an apparent lack of urgency are some of the reasons why these legislative measures have not improved the quality of air. For example, the NCCP dictates the setting up of mass transit facilities in urban centers to curtail emissions, but this will achieve nothing if it is not integrated with the policy for urban planning.

The routes of public transportation need to be carefully planned to cater to the growing urban sprawl. The public transport system in Pakistan has been more focused on the city centres than aimed at connecting suburbs. Therefore mass transit has failed to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Following the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, environment has become the exclusive subject of the provinces to legislate on (and so has climate change being a component of the former). However, the power to execute and ratify international treaties, conventions and agreements remains with the federal government. This disconnect creates a gap in the implementation of the global climate change goals in Pakistan.

What is the way forward? Since climate change is a matter of national security for Pakistan, our laws need to set clear milestones for climate change action and hold the government responsible if it fails to fulfill its obligations. The government needs to come up with a clear plan on how climate change laws will be adapted in the provinces. The provinces need to integrate the government’s climate change action plan into their detailed mitigation and adaptation plans. To ensure an adequate response, both the federal and provincial governments need to work in collaboration. It is here that the PCCC established under the Climate Change Act of 2017 can play a crucial role.


The writer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore   Campus, and may be reached at   [email protected]

Climate change in Pakistan: More real than imagined