After the impact of extreme heat waves, floods and water shortages, climate change is set to become an urgent issue for Pakistan’s government in the next decades, said experts consulted by Climate Tracker. So how will the new government lean into much-needed climate action?
Following the ouster of the sitting Pakistani government, in April, a new cabinet was sworn in, placing Senator Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan People’s Party — one of the country’s largest political parties — as the climate change minister.
Taking charge of the ministry, Rehman highlighted the dire situation, terming climate action as “a matter of national security”.
She also stressed that the country is under growing food insecurity due to impacts to rice, wheat and sugar production.
As the country deals with the impact of extreme heat waves, floods and water shortages, with a new minister in charge of the climate change ministry, experts emphasize the urgency for all levels of government in Pakistan to act.
“Climate change is now poking its nose into the business of government more directly,” explained Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer in Pakistan.
According to the Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2021, a ranking of countries most affected by extreme weather events, Pakistan was the eighth most affected country between 2000-2019.
In a compounding climate crisis, Pakistan is currently simultaneously experiencing a heatwave, glacial lake outburst floods and water shortages.
Alam explained that decisions that were normally made for political purposes in Pakistan, such as increases in petrol prices, will now have to be thought about in terms of climate.
“Now we’re going to have to start more tangibly thinking about how all of this connects to air quality, how all of this connects to our foreign exchange, how to reduce our reliance on imported oil […] or redesigning our cities so we don’t have long distances to cover,” he added.
In 2015, the climate change division of Pakistan was upgraded to a ministry. According to Reuters, this was a step that had come after it had been previously downgraded from the status of a ministry to a division in 2013.
On April 9, the country’s National Assembly — the lower house of parliament — removed the sitting government, after succeeding in passing a vote of no-confidence for former prime minister Imran Khan and his cabinet.
Following the ouster of Khan as the prime minister, his cabinet of ministers was also replaced by the newly appointed coalition government.
On April 19, Rehman was sworn in as the climate change minister. A senior politician, Rehman is a Pakistani senator. She has previously held the position of federal minister for information and broadcasting amongst others.
On the climate front, Rehman was the founding chair of the Senate Climate Change Caucus. In an inaugural session of the caucus in 2018, Rehman was quoted to have said that climate change had “clearly become Pakistan’s most pressing challenge in its scale and impact”.
Climate Tracker contacted the minister and her team on April 28, to which she promised to schedule an interview. However, by the time this report was published, the minister was unable to speak citing a busy schedule.
She replaced the ousted Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party’s climate team including Zartaj Gul as the Minister of State for Climate Change and Malik Amin Aslam as the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change.
As Rehman took charge as climate change minister said she had chosen this ministry because it was of an issue of “cross-cutting importance”.
“It is a challenge all over the world, but Pakistan must start fighting the battle to save its future. It is a lot more than planting trees,” she said through her official Twitter account.
This appeared to be a jibe at the climate policy of the PTI government. Under the PTI-led government, which came into power in 2018, a province level tree plantation programme started in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was expanded nationwide. The Ten Billion Trees Tsunami Programme (TBTTP) became a flagship programme of the PTI government.
Alam noted that PTI was the first mainstream political party that had used a green development project as a “sort of leverage” in its election campaign.
He explained that the party “wore its environmentalism on its feet” and was able to bring some climate discourse into the mainstream, something he noted, that activists had been dreaming about for years.
However, the problem was that such issues also become politicized, Alam explained, sharing that rhetoric about the number of trees planted was presented as the solution to climate change.
With Rehman now at the helm, he said that given that she is unlikely to get more than a year and a half in office —with elections set to take place in 2023 unless early elections are called—, she may be able to address certain things at the ministry at the administrative level.
He hoped that the government was still in office in September so that Rehman could raise the voice of climate justice at the United Nation’s annual climate summit.
Established policy for climate action
In spite of the political changes, Alam said the activities of the climate change ministry would likely not change, adding that its institutional pathway is rooted in Pakistan’s first National Climate Change Policy of 2012.
“We’re one of the few developing countries that has a full fledged climate policy that is based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequently the Paris Agreement,” the environmental lawyer said.
He explained that, focusing on the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities, Pakistan’s climate policy was not focussed on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions but instead on adaptation to climate change.
“That has to do with preparing our agriculture, our irrigation, our animal husbandry practices […] so that is how the policy is set out and that is how the ministry has moved forward,” Alam said.
However, he added that the ministry should be doing more as the obligation under the Paris Agreement is for the most ambitious plan for reducing greenhouse gasses.
According to the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, in 2020, Pakistan contributed 0.6 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The latest version of Pakistan’s climate policy from 2021, states that a focus is “equally on adaptation and mitigation” with an emphasis on nature-based solutions. It notes that in 2012, the focus was on “climate resilient development and adaptation”.
The policy states that following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, Pakistan agreed to contribute to reducing global emissions. As per the policy, the country was in process of developing a National Adaptation Plan.
On May 16, Rehman said that in the prime minister’s meeting on the heatwave she had stated the need for a “coordinated set of core priorities for long term climate adaptation not just mitigation”.
Climate change is already having serious impacts on Pakistan, many of which are starting to become national security threats, as per Rehman.
For example, during May, Pakistan experienced an extreme heat wave that generated temperatures up to nine degrees above normal. Temperatures soared to 51°C in the city of Jacobabad.
Amidst the heatwave, there have been reports of health issues in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, livestock dying in Cholistan Desert and wheat and mango crop reductions caused by the heat.
A study published in May by the scientific organization World Weather Attribution confirmed that climate change increased the likelihood of this extreme event.
Dr Nausheen H Anwar, a professor and director of the Karachi Urban Lab, a center for urban thinking, said city governments and national authorities should find urgent ways to make urban centers like Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, more resilient to climate change. During extreme events, cities face problems accessing electricity and water, for example.
“There is an urgent need for governments, both at the national and the provincial and especially at the local level, to design policy interventions and plans that are aligned with urban planning agendas,” she said.
“There’s no conversation yet at this level in Pakistan,” Anwar said.
In response to the heatwaves and a surge in glacial floodings (an outburst of water coming from a glacial lake), a national task force was set up by the government to respond against climate impacts.
According to Simi Kamal, chairperson of the Hisaar Foundation, a non-profit organization for water, food and livelihood security in Pakistan, the situation in Pakistan should not come as a surprise to anybody.. Scientists have emitted warnings for three decades to no avail, she said.
She said while there are many steps that the climate change minister should be taking, it is necessary for the water ministry to be involved in the process.
She noted that a water council was formed under the National Water Policy of 2018, but this council still has not appointed its full members or formally met..
“The prime minister is supposed to chair it. It is a high level body, why hasn’t it been activated?” she asked.
Referring to the climate crisis and recent devastating impacts in Pakistan, she said that extreme heat, droughts, floods, low forest cover and loss of biodiversity witnessed in the last few months should show the country where it’s headed.
“We may have to move to the rationing of water and the rationing of food down the line, so let’s get prepared for it now,” she concluded.