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Climate change: time is running out – The Express Tribune


ISLAMABAD:

The recent flash floods, with global warming and the resultant climate change holding primary responsibility, affected 33 million Pakistanis and is estimated to run losses of over $30 billion.

Unfortunately, by using the alibi that we emit less than 1% of greenhouse gases (GHG) we are attempting to externalise the issue, claiming that other countries are the only ones responsible for the damages. Even 1% is not really a number we should boast; it is, instead, only a measure of our rudimentary industrial development vis-a-vis those others. Also, these other countries are already on the path of correction, while we appear to have learnt nothing from their experimentation and mistakes.

This article is an attempt at understanding the entire issue in a holistic manner and its potential of affecting our lives.

Back to basics

To proceed further, it is essential to describe some of the terms used above, such as greenhouse gases. Growing plants in controlled environments is an established practice. Such houses are known as greenhouses, where the plants and air are warmed by sun rays and most of that heat remains trapped inside the house keeping it warm to the required degree necessary for the growth of the plants. The same principle operates in the case of the earth’s atmosphere; the sun heats it during the day and the heat is radiated back into the atmosphere as the earth cools at night. The said heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which help keep the earth’s surface warm, making it liveable.

What serves as the most vital variable in this arrangement is the individual concentrations of the said greenhouse gases and their corresponding capacity to retain and radiate heat. The human-induced change in the concentrations, however, has increased the said capacity, thereby having increased the atmosphere’s average temperature or causing global warming.

Carbon-dioxide, methane and nitrous-oxide respectively account for over 79%, 16% and 6% of global human-caused emissions. However, their potential to damage varies. While 40% of carbon-dioxide still remains in the atmosphere after 100 years, methane persists only for a little over 10 year – however, the global warming impact caused by methane is 25 times vis-a-vis that of carbon-dioxide over 100 years. In fact, the same for nitrous-oxide goes up to 300 times. Additionally, these gases cause warming and warmer air holds more water vapours; thereby increasing their capacity to absorb and retain heat, thus adding to the warmth already being caused by GHG emissions.

As a result of the above phenomena, between preindustrial times and now, the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. The resultant global warming is causing heat waves, floods, rise in sea levels due to melting glaciers and an increase in ocean temperatures etc. If left unchecked, the above temperature may touch 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Global response

Population size, economic and industrial activity, and its associated energy mix, determine all human-caused GHG emissions. Historically, and simultaneously with the industrial revolution, we also observe a strong public mobilisation for environmental conservation all over the West.

By the late 60’s and mid-1970’s, full-blown green movements and political parties had emerged. The German Green Party even remained a coalition partner from 1998 until 2005. It was because of this awareness that, since the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, environmental protection has assumed centre stage. The conference was followed by the Earth summit in June 1992, held in Brazil, during which the UN established an international environmental treaty. The resultant Kyoto Protocol implemented in 2005 defined binding emission targets for 37 industrialised countries.

The protocol was then superseded by the Paris Agreement in 2015 with the primary goal of limiting global warming preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Pakistan’s response

As per the Global Climate Risk Index of Germanwatch, Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most prone to the ravages of global warming and the associated extreme weather events. Still, we observe minimal sensitisation at any forum in this regard.

To develop the required infrastructure adapted to such events, we require $7-$14 billion per annum. We all know our own budgetary constraints; whereas, accessing the several external climate funding options requires well rounded professional capacity which we are acutely short of.

By 2030, Pakistan aims to shift to 60% clean renewable energy, including enhancing hydel capacity by over 50%, using 30% electric vehicles and placing a complete ban on imported coal, all the while focusing on gasification and liquefaction of indigenous coal.

The biggest question is not the shortage of funds, rather it is, where is that professional capacity to plan and implement the above fundamental shift? The institutions serving in other countries and acting as engines of such shifts are missing entirely. Nothing describes our dismal preparedness for transition to clean energy better than the Global Energy Transition Index of the World Economic Forum that places Pakistan at 104 out of 115 countries, with a score of 49.

Another parameter reflecting the attitude of a country towards global warming is when did its GHG emissions peak and start coming down, or its future target for the same. While 19 had peaked by 1990; the number would reach to 57, covering 60% of the global emissions by 2030. As to Pakistan; its GHG emissions increased by 140% since 1990 until 2017 and are expected to increase by 300% in 2030 vis-a-vis their level in 2015.

In 2000, we signed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals targeting accomplishment of those goals by 2015; increasing forest cover was one of the main targets. Pakistan, however, observed an erosion of 1% in the same from 6% to 5% during the period. India and China, on the other hand, increased forest cover from 22.7% to 23.8% and from 18.8% to 22.3% respectively. No one would believe that we had started in 1947 with a cover of 33%.

What needs to be done?

Currently, Pakistan is dealing with an existential challenge that requires intensive relevant knowledge, experience and capacity to lead. This can only be met effectively if Pakistan hands the lead on this to professionals immediately because the margins on the response time to the threat already stands exhausted.

The writer is a petroleum engineer and an oil and gas management professional

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2022.

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