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2020: Negotiating The Challenges Of Climate Change

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The year 2020 started with Australia on fire. It continued with California, and South America on fire. And it is drawing to a close with COVID-19 on fire. We had lockdowns, smart lockdowns (unlike stupid lockdowns), ‘no tension’ lockdowns, and discovered special immunities among Pakistanis.
But despite a global slow down atmosphericCarbon concentrations crossed the 410 parts per million. Such numbers seemed unimaginable to me, when I sat down to work on Pakistan’s first climate response strategy in 1992. For the uninitiated, the last time we had such Carbon concentrations was 3-5 million years ago. At the time the global temperatures were on average 2-3̊C warmer and the world’s oceans were 20-30 meters higher than today. The last fact for Pakistan basically would’ve meant that the Arabian Sea coastline at such oceanic heights would’ve been somewhere near the Salt Range, and Jehlum would’ve been a beach resort.
So, I won’t be enlightening anyone if I were to say that 2020 was a bad year for climate. Yes, the lockdowns led to about 17% lesser emissions, but the rate of change in atmospheric carbon concentrations was no more than the natural fluctuation that one observes. How did we manage to have another bad year for the climate? and what can we do for 2021 to slow our headlong march towards the abyss?

As a geographer I may sound like a broken record when I say that I am trained in a most liberating discipline possible. No one cares about what we have to say. Hence, we can practically say anything we want, including the truth. We don’t have a Nobel prize, or high priests or lucrative government or corporate jobs for which we have to bow to power. So, let me give you a geographers’ take on what continued to go wrong in 2020 and what we could do right in 2021, but probably won’t.

Climate crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to affect everyone equally. The women, the poor and the weak are likely to suffer the most from climate change, even though they have the least contribution to it. Like the (non)solutions to the COVID-19 crisis in Pakistan, climate change mitigation was also avoided in Pakistan in the name of the poor, but actually to the benefit of the rich.
And as faithfully as Pakistani state threw up its hands and said it couldn’t do anything for COVID-19 because the white folks in the West couldn’t either, it also kept pretending that climate was someone else’s problem and hopefully a cash cow to milk the often blasphemous/Islamophobe Western donors.
But climate is as much a problem for the Pakistan’s poor as it is for anyone else—just ask the victims of: heat stress, sleepless summer nights, floods, droughts, dengue (a tropical disease unknown before in Pakistan), and water borne diseases.

In 2020 Pakistan continued to ape the Western model of mass production mass consumption development, disguised as Riasat Medina. Previous incarnations of the same being Islamic Welfare State, Islamic Socialism, and Decade of Development etc. The symptom of that model of developmentas usual, was the most anti-poor and ecologically destructive urban design and consumption patterns. The catastrophic Islamabad/DHA/Bahria model of urban development maintained its hegemony over the planning imaginary. Pakistani cities continued to sprawl with automobile dependent urban design, turning Pakistani urban spaces into dystopian rich people’s slums, complete with automobiles that kept urbanites captive within their airconditioned confines. Meanwhile, life unfolded for the poor in their water deprived, baking oven hot and freezer cold concrete boxes in informal settlements. The high carbon footprint of the rich made sure that we followed the worst excesses of the West consistent with our implacable desire to ape it.

In the water sector, the buzz was again on nonsensical ideas about high dams in seismic zones. No conversations were had about efficient management, different crop mixes for less water use, or even undertaking pro-poor and gender inclusive water management. The state faithfully parroted the Reagan/Thatcher mantra of economic growth through greater economic activity, higher profits for the already rich, foreign investment, higher carbon emissions and of course CPEC.

Pakistan’s climate policy is, as usual, hamstrung by singular lack of imagination and use of off the shelf concepts and ideas that the western policy wonks invent and peddle. The policy is premised upon the fallacy that carbon emissions mitigation is a rich countries problem and climate adaptation is our problem that should be paid for by the rich. In challenging this fallacy, might perhaps lie a pathway for Pakistan to chart out a more pro-poor and climate change responsive developmental path.

Higher carbon emissions are not an outcome of development necessarily, but rather of the mass production mass consumption economies. The wastage of energy and resources inherent in such a model means, that local scale life worlds of the poor get air and water pollution, deforested hill slopes, poisoned soils, depleted water and fisheries and depressed wages. The national and global scale elites on the other hand harvest astronomical profits, power, influence and DHA plots. Low carbon development is pro-poor development. There can be no meaningful adaptation to climate challenges without carbon emission mitigation. I discuss climate compliant urban design to illustrate my point.

In 2021 if Pakistan were to move away from the ring road, expressway, DHA, Ravi city types of wrong headed urban design policies, it could simultaneously protect its poor citizens and be climate change prepared. More compact, walkable cities, with good public transport could ensure that the poor have not only access to the city, but also that the high energy air conditioning dependent building design becomes unnecessary. Rejuvenation of inner cities and if possible,banning of the infernal villas and bungalow style housing on big plots could remove the need for automobile congestion, and could save energy. Compact townhouses, built with appropriate material could remove the summer electricity spikes and winter gas crises, while saving consumers money. Mixed use neighbourhoods, instead of the absolutely foolish single use residential/commercial zoning that promotescommuting and automobile dependency, could lower air and noise pollution as well as reduce carbon footprint. Islamabad, for example, is a model of how not to design a city.

Fact is that protecting the small farmer, moving away from high input agriculture, sensible water management, off grid energy development in rural areas, rail based transport, mass transit, compact urban design, discouraging of urban sprawl, banning of the infernal ring roads, through a slew of policy instruments could prepare Pakistan to negotiate the challenges of a climate change future. But beyond that, it could ensure a better present and future for its population, and for once help it become a positive example in the comity of nations.

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Naya Daur