Pakistan’s Climate Journey in 16 Months

A small anecdote sums up the cognitive confusion and lack of social or political investment about the environment and climate change in high places in Pakistan. When I took over the Federal Ministry of Climate Change and Environmental Coordination in April 2022, it was called just the Federal Ministry of Climate Change.

The environment addendum was included later at my request to the cabinet because the ministry was the notified entity for all international environmental, biodiversity and climate change treaties and conventions, as well as the lead department for the Wildlife Board managing the Margalla Hills National Park. When I walked into its lobby, I noticed that the insignia at the door said mosamiat, which actually translates as ‘weather’ in English. After weeks of intensive consultations, it was agreed that in Urdu it would now say mahauliat which was more appropriate.

From then onwards it was 16 months of crisis management, while we built on new layers of institutional roadmaps. Quite apart from changing its name to a more befitting one that matched the scope of its work, in April we found ourselves confronted with a cascading heatwave all over the country. Climate stress had become the new normal. By June, Pakistan had recorded for the third year running temperatures at 53.6 C in parts of Sindh. We were, for yet another year, the hottest place on the planet. Along with that, our forests in three provinces had ignited into a smoky patchwork of stubborn forest wildfires, while glacial lake outburst floods had erupted in the north of the country. We had gone straight into summer from winter, which for a city like Islamabad is simply not the norm. Climate change has started swallowing entire seasons. Much more was amiss at the global warming levels than we had been given to understand.

In the entire 16 months of government, this small ministry redefined both itself and the nature of the climate challenge the country was coping with. It still has a long way to go.

Given that our scope was limited to the federal government, designed to deal with international treaties and covenants which require national frameworks and focal points, the challenges were onerous. The implementers were the provinces, except in ICT, yet we were needed to create international instruments and respond to multilateral conventions, partners and climate governance systems that recognized only national frameworks. We organised a Task Force on Heatwaves with all the provinces on board, as well as a similar one on forest fires. The first two were convened at PM House under my chairmanship, and we found that all provinces responded really well to our guidance and capacity-building. We shared guidelines issued by both task forces on how to cope with both challenges in different terrain. To this day, these guidelines are used to save lives.

The rapid desertification of the delta region was another crucial challenge facing a country with looming water scarcity by 2025. The Ministry of Water Resources was engaged to start a national conversation on water conservation, while we accelerated our work with WWF on the stagnating Recharge Pakistan project for restoring the health of our wetlands in each province. By July 2023, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) had agreed to convert our loan for this project to a grant of $77 million, with the support of donors. Much more needed to be done.

At the same time, we completed and launched the 25-part Living Indus Initiative along with the support of the UNEP and other UN agencies, at both the international and national levels, completing in record time all consultations with the provinces. Going forward, the Living Indus is now ready to turn into a functional organic, programmatic template for a multi-level intervention to save the great river on which 80 per cent of Pakistan is dependent. As it stands, the Indus is now the fourth most polluted river in the world. It is also Pakistan’s lifeline, which is why it needs attention. I hope the next government can spur the provinces to projectize the priorities we identified for financing and development.

In the north of Pakistan the summer of 2022 proved to be equally harsh, particularly in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the glacial lake outburst floods afflicted vulnerable communities in more than 75 crises. We managed to save lives with our early warning systems via the GLOF programmes we were running there with UNDP. This programme was upscaled to its second stage as one of the most successful low-cost community-based programmes in a terrain which hosted the highest number of glaciers outside the polar region. We were not able to slow down the heating that caused glacial melt, nor decelerate the outburst floods that increased by 300 per cent, but we were able to build resilience for it.

The real challenge proved to be coping with the great mega-flood of 2022, that put Pakistan on the map for impacting 33 million people, breaking all records for rain as it inundated one-third of the country, most particularly in the south. Sindh and Balochistan became the hub of the NDMA’s disaster relief efforts, with rescue itself running into weeks. The country’s entire public and private philanthropic infrastructure was on maximum overstretch on the ground, and simultaneous crises soaked up coordinated efforts of many ministries including this one, the PM, the FM, the military and all international agencies. There were just too many people to manage, yet we pulled together in a prolonged and remarkable effort of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding.

Shortly after, we had to gear up for COP 27. For the first time in the history of Pakistan the National Council on Climate Change was convened under the leadership of the PM. There, we presented and articulated Pakistan’s case for climate justice as a fractional emitter of greenhouse gases, while being clearly in the frontline of climate hotspots globally. We fought hard for the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund, which we succeeded in creating at Sharm el Shaikh, with the FM making sure Loss & Damage was put on the agenda of the conference as chair of G77 plus China. For 18 days, we tirelessly pushed the case for Loss and Damage both at our pavilion and at UNFCCC forums, for the entire Global South. The UN SG spoke at Pakistan’s pavilion for the first time, where the PM capped off his visit with a big push for climate justice, just as he had done at the UN in September. Pakistan’s country pavilion and climate branding as a leader became the place to campaign for climate justice, with the slogan, “what goes on in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan”, resonating worldwide as a case for revamped multilateralism as a real solution.

While we were trying to work on building back better, assessments told us that rehabilitating millions would cost $16 billion. All available funds had been repurposed for relief and for immediate cash transfers to those in the frontline of the human tragedy. Climate and early warning funds were the first to go. For a country drowning in both debt and floods, the 4RF plan was developed by the Planning Ministry, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and three other ministries putting in late nights, including Climate Change as we planned and pushed for it at Geneva, where the UN hosted a Climate Resilient Pakistan conference. As we reminded international audiences via powerful videos that captured a slice of the devastation, 33 million people impacted was the size of three medium-sized European countries. Around $9 billion plus were pledged, double the estimate of what we had expected, but experience told us pledges are slow to materialize. The World Bank had already launched its Country and Climate Development Report at COP 27 with us, targeting $348 billion as the financing needed for Pakistan to keep its head above water until 2030.

Climate finance and technical capacity became a real chokehold on rebuilding with resilience, but we also learnt that systemic vulnerability needed to be the lens we looked at all sustainable development from now on. Women and children, and the indigent were impacted disproportionately during the crisis, and all plans to adapt or build resilience needed to absorb that field lesson learnt from the flood of 2022. The Climate Ministry launched and drew on the Climate Gender Policy we had completed with the support of IUCN and pushed hard to mainstream women and vulnerability in all planning at the department.

As Pakistan continued reeling from the exogenous shock of accelerated climate impacts, it also became clear to many of us that global warming was not changing course. The year 2030 marked the dangerous as well as the decisive decade.

Pakistan was clearly located in an acute arc of vulnerability, with GHG emissions reaching record levels translating into unprecedented land and sea temperatures crossing the 1.5 C threshold set in Paris. Given that emissions were not going down globally, as committed at Paris in 2015, but quite the opposite, even a rough national stocktake suggested we shift gears. Mitigation plans for switching to renewable energy were important, as much for our own energy independence and reduction of imports but also for meeting our NDC commitments. Between the Ukraine war, which interrupted critical energy and food supply chains, and extreme climate emergencies the world over, it also became clear that an axial shift was needed to focus key resources on resilience.

Pakistan urgently needed a National Adaptation Plan, not to mention the governance tools needed to execute it at provincial and local levels. Why? Because if we cannot do anything about the era of ‘global boiling’ as the UNSG called it after July of 2023, we can at least do all we can to be better prepared. This means a whole-of-country shift in inclusive, local-centric development planning, budgeting, building and conserving, where tools are fit-for-purpose, not one-size-fits-all. It means a strategic shift in how we think of urban growth and rural renewal, and especially how we manage the critical water-agri sector in climate governance models. It means far more coordinated, smarter disaster management and early risk warning investments. It means changing how we manage our hydromet sector, treat waste and sewage, manage our municipal services, mitigate for impacts on public health, women, labour and youth cohorts, invest in drought-resistant crops, and enlarge green spaces and urban forests within cities, not run bulldozers over every empty space.

NAPs should, like country projections, be home-grown. After six months of provincial consultations and many drafts later, I requested a development writer at the World Bank to help structure our knowledge document and pull it together by July 20, 2023. With a core team of six, we worked literally round the clock, often around my dining table on weekends, to get it done. It was passed by cabinet a week later. Its success depends entirely on the provinces, as they are the lead implementing departments. Our job was to work with key line ministries, provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and give them this document as a roadmap, which many developing countries have filed at the UNFCCC. Provinces can actually make their own adaptation plans out of this to make a real shift in adapting to an era of global burn.

While we were doing all this, we knew that at the same time Pakistan also needed a National Clean Air Policy. Lahore was choking on its smog every winter. Children were being held back from schools in November because the air was too toxic to breathe. Senior citizens were at risk. The NCAP identified key priority areas for national intervention and provincial action immediately for reducing the particulate matter and other toxins that are increasing the pollution levels of our cities. A Pakistan Cooling Action Plan has also been developed to reduce emissions from cooling products such as refrigerators and air conditioners. Provincial consultations are underway to identify targets and minimum energy performance standards.

Devolution dictates that each province act according to its own laws, so we hope air quality becomes a priority, both for measurement and for action.

For stopping the dumping of hazardous and other waste in our country and coastline, we presented and passed via cabinet a National Hazardous Waste Management Policy. Countries that had dumped over a 150 containers of mixed waste in our waters a few years ago can no longer do that without penalties invoked in coastal EPAs, and imports of waste for recycling and industrial purposes have to be certified by the provincial EPAs for genuine use, else we deny them the NOCs at the federal level. In a similar vein, the reduction of single-use plastics from markets has begun with the public sector, which for ICT means the federal government, extending then to prohibitions on plastic items which under extended user responsibility protocols, manufacturers have agreed to stop in ICT from August 1, 2023.

The battle against plastics is a long one, but the journey has to begin and go beyond polythene bags. Citizens need to be stakeholders, as no one can police climate change at the door-to-door level, but regulations lay a foundation. Our Urban Policy Framework still needs inputs from the provinces, as do many other plans, like the EV policy parked for incentive changes in the Finance Ministry.

The National REDD+ strategy, the upscaling of the Green Pakistan program had started earlier, like the finished NCCP document. I did not believe in tearing up any policy on the basis of partisan politics. The enhancement of forests, especially given the need to prevent deforestation, is also on the way. Reduction in emissions is a part of the large carbon sequestration projects already prioritized in our delta mangroves, where Sindh has taken a global lead in enhancing mangrove cover by 300 per cent from the 1990s. At the federal level, a comprehensive carbon trade framework is on the anvil, premised on a carbon registry being developed with support from the World Bank. Energy transition plans remain central to ambitious mitigation efforts, especially with a shift towards renewables, but financing remains a barrier to much of the change.

Lastly, but very importantly, we moved the Islamabad Nature Conservation and Wildlife Management bill through both houses of parliament to unanimous approval, so that boundaries to the green area called the Margalla Hills Wildlife Park are not further encroached, and the vital connection between biodiversity, environmental regeneration and climate change is reified and enhanced. Cities that leave their green areas to the mercy of developers are not cities of the future, and Islamabad deserves to keep its lungs

We also needed to create new rules for animal sanctuaries, define what constituted wildlife, and how animals cannot be treated like circus creatures to be paraded, caged, abused for human entertainment anymore. Zoos are increasingly frowned upon as places of unnatural habitat for many species, and we have many examples of exotic and non-indigenous species suffering cruel and indifferent treatment at the hands of local zoos, so all such facilities in Islamabad are now only reserved for the rehabilitation of animals found in illegal captivity for onward sanctuary.

We called a meeting of all provinces to advise, not direct, (as we cannot do that) them on how to revamp their own zoos according to more humane laws, allowing animals to live in their own ecosystem where they maintain nature’s balance better than humans. Zoning will help all of us stay in our own allocated habitats. Let us hope some of this thinking and planning devolves down to the local levels of Pakistan.

Much of what we did in 16 months is just a framework for intense time and resource investment planning for the next government. Pakistan needs to take the triple planetary crisis as seriously as a national security crisis.

A version of this article was published in The News