Nature and Biodiversity

How Pakistan's 'tree tsunami' will revive their climate action

Women walk along flowering and blossoming trees along a roadside in Islamabad, Pakistan March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood - RC1D3CE6BFC0

Image: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Rina Saeed Khan
Writer, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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At this month’s U.N. climate talks in Poland, Pakistan promised to move away from coal investment and ensure climate-resilient growth. This was a departure from the previous government’s preference for fossil fuel energy, and in line with the “green political will” of new Prime Minister Imran Khan, according to his climate change advisor Malik Amin Aslam.

At the COP24 negotiations, Pakistan also became one of the first developing countries to commit to reviewing its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to global climate action before the Paris Agreement starts in 2020. Announcing this at the talks, Aslam, head of Pakistan’s delegation, said the revised NDC would include measures the new government had initiated, which will strengthen Pakistan’s efforts to reduce planet-warming emissions.

Its programmes include the “Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project” that was designed by Aslam and first implemented in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Now the federal government under Khan, who took office in August, has launched a nationwide 10 Billion Tree Tsunami project.

Aslam said Pakistan’s willingness to “develop along a different pathway and become an enabler of the new transition economy” was demonstrated by the $120 million it has spent on planting and protecting trees so far. It plans to use a further $1 billion of its domestic resources to expand forests over the next five years.

Aslam said the current government is also committed to capitalising on Pakistan’s large potential for wind, solar and hydropower, as well as utilising nuclear energy. “More than 365 small run-of-the-river hydro projects have been set up in the north,” he said in his speech at COP24. “In the transport sector, with catalytic Green Climate Fund financing, Pakistan has finalised a multi-million-dollar zero emission bus metro system for the city of Karachi operating on cattle waste-generated biogas,” he added.

Coal no longer king?

Environmentalists had criticised the weak NDC document Pakistan initially submitted under the Paris Agreement. It projected a four-fold increase in emissions by 2030, noting the rise could be reduced but only with international assistance. Hammad Naqi Khan, director general of WWF-Pakistan, said the NDC reflected the desire of the previous government to explore the potential of coal as an energy resource.

Under Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif, the government announced half a dozen coal power plants that are under currently construction. Two - at Sahiwal and Port Qasim with generation capacity of about 1.3 gigawatts each - are now operational, using imported coal.

While the new government cannot undo the coal power plants being built or already up and running, Aslam said the government would continue “strict monitoring” of their environmental impacts. It is also working to revoke a “criminal cap” on the amount of renewable power provinces can feed into the grid (50 megawatts each), which he said was aimed at boosting the use of coal and gas.

“We are in the process of removing this unholy subsidisation of coal and will be definitely focusing on renewables – wind, solar and hydro,” Aslam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the climate talks.

WWF’s Naqi Khan welcomed the news from COP24, noting that Pakistan’s previous NDC had lacked an ambitious plan to bring more renewables into the energy mix, as well as a solid commitment to avoid fossil fuel power plants.

 A boy stands near a wind turbine that produces energy in a village at Hub about 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Karachi June 18, 2010.
A boy stands near a wind turbine that produces energy in a village at Hub about 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Karachi June 18, 2010. Image: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

A new report released by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis this December noted that renewable energy, including wind and solar, is now the cheapest form of new electricity generation in Pakistan.

Image: IEEFA

Back in the game

Pakistan may have sent a small delegation to COP24, but the negotiators were able to highlight the country’s vulnerability to climate change and engage more effectively with the global process, observers said. Pakistan was elected Vice President and Rapporteur of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, giving it a key role in the organisation of the talks in 2019. It also secured seats on five other technical bodies to regulate climate action and financial flows.

Pakistan’s re-engagement with the climate change negotiations comes after several years of being sidelined, said Shafqat Kakakhel, board chair of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. “It was a Pakistani negotiator, Ambassador Jamsheed Marker, who was responsible for putting the F for Framework into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Pakistan was always known for its principled stance. But since 2012, Pakistan has not been a significant player at these negotiations due to the absence of skilled negotiators,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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That situation seems to have been reversed with a revitalised delegation led by Aslam, who is also global vice president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. According to Aisha Khan, head of Pakistan’s Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change, “Aslam’s understanding of the subject gives him an edge and the ability to represent Pakistan’s case convincingly.”

With Pakistan now forced to cope with worsening floods, droughts, heatwaves and melting glaciers, Aslam said the new government is working on a shift towards climate-resilient agriculture, plus an initiative to utilise the Indus River floodwaters for ecosystem restoration. “I must emphasis that these actions and initiatives go much beyond our NDC and are happening in spite of the expected external financial flows not materialising,” he said in his speech at the climate talks.

In its original NDC, Pakistan said it could lower its projected greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20 percent in 2030 if it received international climate finance of around $40 billion. Now it says it will revise the figures in its NDC once it has calculated all the emissions to be saved from its new green projects. “Pakistan must take action on the ground for the sake of its own people,” Aslam said.

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Nature and BiodiversityEconomic GrowthSustainable DevelopmentClimate ActionEnergy Transition
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