Nisar A. Memon
05-June-2019 – The News International
Pakistan contributes less than one percent of global warming but is among the 10 most affected countries due to climate change. The country participates in various global programmes to fight these challenges, with our scientists actively contributing to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), government and civil society participating in the Conference of Parties (COP). We signed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015 along with 193 countries and observe World Environment Day on June 5 each year.
This year’s theme for World Environment Day is ‘Air Pollution’ and China is hosting the main event in Hangzhou. The day will urge governments, industry, communities, and individuals to come together to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve air quality in cities and regions across the world. The global challenge is to fight the facts that about seven million people worldwide die prematurely each year from air pollution with about four million in the Asia-Pacific region; 92 percent people worldwide do not breathe clean air; air pollution costs the global economy $5 trillion every year in welfare costs; and ground-level ozone pollution is expected to reduce staple crop yields by 26 percent by 2030.
Pakistan was among the first countries to create a separate federal environment ministry, and started a federal campaign for tree plantation – which continues till today. We enacted an Environment Policy in 2005 which was updated and evolved to the Climate Change Policy, 2012. We have several institutions such as the Environment Protection Agency, the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, Pakistan Meteorological Department, Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission etc. In addition to these institutions, parliament has been working on addressing societal challenges. In June 2007, the Senate Defence Committee tabled its report following the crash of a PAF aircraft near Masroor Base Karachi, caused by a bird flying in its engine from nearby solid waste dump. The then prime minister invited the committee with all the stakeholders and accepted all its 19 recommendations. The prime minister appointed an implementation committee to ensure that all recommendations saw the light of day.
The civil society has also been active on the subject of the environment. The Environment Stakeholders Action Committee under leadership of a young Karachi businessman Ziad Bashir produced a valuable report on ‘Karachi Waste Management – A Challenge for Progress’ – proposing various reforms and projects. In summary, lot of analysis, reports, actions but yet the challenges remain.
Pollution caused by solid waste, plastics and untreated sewerage and chemical discharge in rivers and sea affects not only humans but life under water as well as valuable equipment, including expensive naval vessels. The air pollution impact of burning diesel from transportation on the roads continues unabated. These emissions as well as the unchecked methane from agriculture and arsenic presence in ground water are all causing immense health costs.
The opportunity of eco-friendly inland transportation and eco-tourism in our northern mountains and southern Indus delta is a source of earning and wellbeing of the people, but the potential remains to be fully exploited.
The impact of human activity on the environment is mostly due to population, affluence and technology. The higher the population, the greater is the impact by use of land and resources affecting pollution, climate change and biodiversity. Even though higher population could bring greater affluence in the form of higher GDP, nevertheless it would result in higher consumption – increasing the demand for resources like water, electricity, gas, transportation etc and adversely affecting the environment. These increases are capped by politically motivated planning, weak governance, insufficient investments in institutions and archaic systems, and non-matching civic services. Technology can bring improvement but it requires investment. In the current hard times of economic downturn, immediate programmes to launch birth control and plug illegal inbound migration require our immediate attention.
Today, on World Environment Day we need to remind ourselves of the 17 SDGs which address the whole gamut of life on the planet. These include: water, energy, food, life on land, life under water, health, education, gender equality, economic growth, inequalities, climate actions, etc. In so far as the environment is concerned; several SDGs address these challenges but SDG 11 ‘sustainable cities and communities’ is more relevant since many issues faced in cities are similar to those in peri-urban, rural and mountainous areas. Nearly one billion urban people living in informal settlements are putting a pressure on the environment and consequently face the same challenges. SDG 11 must be seen in conjunction with SDG 7 (‘affordable and clean energy’), SDG 12 (‘sustainable consumption and production’), and SDG 13 (‘climate actions’).
Pakistan has installed clean energy; we have a good base and must build on it without political considerations. Our mega city Karachi and other large cities in each province need specific focus, where CO2 emissions from consumption and flaring of imported fossil fuels has increased over the years, thus the urgency to employ clean solar, wind and hydel energy.
Air quality in Pakistan is reported to exceed safe limits in all major cities, with Lahore worst than the national guidelines. Apart from the thousands of deaths due to air pollution, over 5.88 percent of GDP or $47.8 billion is the estimated economic burden of air pollution in Pakistan as reported by the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative – which is one of several professional organization helping to bring awareness regarding air quality in the country. The new UN report on air pollution encourages us to implement new technologies which could see up to a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions globally, leading to a third of a degree celsius saving of global warming. Pakistan will do well to create a better environment by investing in it, since the environment and the economy are two sides of the same coin and to sustain ourselves, we must sustain the environment.
The right to a clean environment is a fundamental right of all citizens of Pakistan. The constitution of Pakistan recognizes it in Article 9 – right to life – and Article 14 – right to dignity. The Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997 and many laws relating to environment have already been enacted for judicious implementation. The government has the constitutional responsibility to provide a clean environment to its citizens but we the citizens cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibility and as Margaret Mead the renowned anthropologist said, ’Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
The writer is chairman of the WaterEnvironment Forum, Pakistan and former federal minister and senator.