The World Environment Day observed on June 5 focused attention on the need to save the world from the climate catastrophe looming ahead.
Rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and motorisation around the world have led to economic growth but in the process humanity has paid a high price in terms of environmental degradation. The biggest challenge that we face today is climate change which is resulting in increasing droughts, floods, natural disasters, sudden rainfalls, excessive temperatures and reduced biodiversity.
In recent years, environmentalists have written extensively on the issue of melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Some time back, the World Bank made an assessment of how South Asia may be affected by global warming. The WB report underlined the danger of floods that might result from the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that feed water to the rivers flowing into South Asia as well as China and Afghanistan.
The media recently carried reports about the breakup of a glacier in the Himalayas, causing a deadly flash flood that smashed through a hydroelectric power plant and destroyed homes in Uttarakhand, a mountainous northern state in India. The government rushed disaster response teams but it was too late. A second power plant was also damaged. The glaciers are melting due to global warming and pose a serious threat to South Asian states. A joint regional response to the threat must be formulated at the earliest to avert a bigger tragedy in the coming years.
An emergent issue is that of growing air pollution which has reached critical levels in many parts of the world, including Pakistan. The suspended particles, in either solid or liquid forms, are the major factors behind deteriorating air quality indices. PM2.5 refers to particles which have a diameter of less than 2.5 microns (one millionth of a meter), whereas PM10 refers to particles that have a diameter of less than 10 microns. 2016 saw the deaths of 4.1 million people across the world due to PM2.5. Outdoor air pollution results in premature deaths of 30 people per 100,000. The economic costs of air pollution stand at $410 million, and the social implications of indoor air pollution result in 25 deaths per 100,000 people, mostly women. Furthermore, the reduction of average life expectancy by 2.7 years due to air pollution is one of the major social issues that we face.
The climate summit convened by President Joe Biden recently brought together 40 world leaders in a bid to secure new commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions and step up efforts to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis. The US, responsible for a major part of toxic gaseous emissions, has a major role to play in controlling environmental pollution.
The Biden administration has now committed to reducing US GHG emissions by 50-52% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels — an ambitious pledge indeed. On the other hand, Japan has agreed to a seemingly underwhelming 46-50% cut below 2013 levels by 2030. Three governments and nine companies also built on work done by the Environmental Defense Fund, announcing the LEAF Coalition to mobilize at least $1 billion this year for large-scale forest protection and sustainable development designed to benefit Indigenous peoples and forest communities. Given the enormity of climate calamity, it is incumbent on all governments to introduce measures which lead to the reduction of CO2 emissions.
Among other issues, new evidence has surfaced showing that air quality in Pakistan will deteriorate further unless targeted short and long-term strategies are developed and implemented. Pakistan needs to increase its capacity to accurately measure air quality indices. In this connection, rapid improvement in institutional and technical capacity of air quality management and monitoring organisations is of prime importance. The Pakistan Clean Air Programme (PCAP) is a major initiative designed to improve air quality nationwide. The programme involves a critical review of the current problems and proposes various mitigation measures to improve air quality.
The country at present does not have a comprehensive nationwide air quality monitoring programme. The lack of a nation-wide AQM network means that spatial and temporal trends of air pollution are difficult to access. However, independent actors have put up their own monitoring equipment and the data is fed into their websites for public use.
Switching to mass transit, adoption of electric vehicles and use of renewable energy are the pathways to a cleaner and fresh-air Pakistan. The objective of the PTI government’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme is to make Pakistan greener and improve air quality. In the span of two years, the billionth tree was recently planted by the PM in the Makhniyal Forest, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to coincide with World Environment Day 2021. The government has also developed a National Electric Vehicle policy that recognises the need to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. Additionally, the Ministry of Climate Change launched the Green Economic Stimulus during the pandemic to promote environmental activities and generate employment for those who were severely impacted due to lockdowns and closure of businesses. Needless to emphasise, through better air quality, Pakistan will not only be able to fulfil its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement but also improve overall health of its people through reduced cases of respiratory ailments.