By: Sarfraz Saroya
‘Plant for Pakistan’ and other possible avenues
While Pakistan is facing multifarious challenges like a sagging economy, depleting foreign exchange reserves and a skyrocketing trade deficit, there is another serious problem which will put Imran Khan’s cabinet in real trouble: climate change. When he unveiled his party’s 100-day plan for the country in May 2018, he showed concern on the seriousness of environmental crisis that Pakistan is facing due to emission of greenhouse gases by industrial and energy infrastructures. He pledged to plant 10 billion trees to tackle the effects of climate change in the same meeting. But is plantation enough to make a difference?
A green Pakistan is one of the many priorities of the current PTI-led government. In the past, when PTI was the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the provincial government had launched a “Billion Tree Tsunami”. This drive has been a huge success as per the findings of SUPARCO. Now that PTI holds a majority in the centre, the party and its leadership are determined to fight global warming and climate change. So, taking a leaf from its Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI decided to upscale the model on the national level. During the very first cabinet meeting of the new government, Prime Minister Imran Khan inquired when a tree plantation drive would take place since we are almost at the tail end of the monsoon season now. After consultations with experts, the government announced an ambitious 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme for the next five years. The purpose of the campaign is to encourage people, communities, organisations, business and industry, civil society and the government to collectively plant trees and increase forest cover with a special focus on planting the species that best suit the area and weather conditions. So, on Sep 02, Prime Minister Imran Khan planted a tree sapling in Haripur district and, thus, kicked off this countrywide campaign. Thousands of people responded to the nationwide campaign that went viral on social media, by coming out to plant trees all over Pakistan. The campaign was much needed because experts fear that Pakistan will be one of the worst affected countries by this phenomenon.
Should this plan come to fruition, it would be the largest environmental uplift project in the country’s history. Deforestation in Pakistan will worsen the impact of climate change and has already led to more severe flooding. Any attempt to reverse this trend should be welcomed by everyone; regardless of political ideology.
For the government, the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami should be seen as a starting point and not the final destination. Pakistan is expected to be hit worse than most other countries by climate change and so we have to adapt to the challenges of tomorrow. This means practicing water conservation and shifting power consumption to sustainable energy choices.
The government will have to be careful as it has launched its tree-planting campaign; simply planting new trees won’t be enough. These new trees will take years to mature and in that time, the tide of deforestation has to be stemmed by reining in the timber mafia. Commercial interests often collude with unscrupulous government officials to chop down trees on public lands. This should no longer be tolerated. The government also needs to work with experts to ensure that the trees it is planting are suitable for our climate and soil. Planting the wrong kind of trees, which require extra water, can often be worse than not planting any trees at all.
Read More: The Cure for Pakistan’s Climate Change Woes
In addition, the government needs also to take into consideration some other factors as well so as to make the project fruitful and cost-effective.
First of all, the plantation project will require a huge sum of money that could be a burden on the national exchequer. Fertilizing tree plantation requires large input of nitrogenous fertilizer (which also results in emission of greenhouse gases). Moreover, huge quantity of water will be used to plant trees. We cannot afford consuming large quantities of water on plantation. So, the principal focus of this campaign should be on cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Plantation will act as major support to tackle climate change problem but remember, it is not an absolute solution.
Imran Khan will have to take tough decisions. Fortunately, solutions exist and if executed properly, Pakistan can effectively tackle the problem of climate change.
First and the foremost, construction of coal-fired power plants and coal mining at Thar Block I and II , under multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), should be halted. Because once they started functioning, tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted, which will further pollute the atmosphere. Methane, just like carbon dioxide, is a heat-trapping green house gas which gets released from the coal seam and surrounding disturbed rock strata when coal is mined.
Prime Minister Khan should instead ask China to invest more and more in electricity-generation projects based on renewable energy sources, especially the solar energy. If China can invest $86 billion in solar energy at home, then why not in Pakistan? Also note that China is the largest solar market in the world, having the total installed photovoltaic capacity of around 130GW. Rather than building $5.6 billion worth of coal-fired power plants under CPEC, it can invest the same amount on Pakistan’s renewable green energy infrastructure!
Pakistan has huge potential to generate electricity from renewable energy sources like solar, hydro and wind. Fortunately, the country receives high levels of solar irradiation. According to the World Bank’s solar maps report, some parts of south-western Balochistan and Sindh have an average Global Horizontal Irradiance (GHI – which is the solar radiation received by any surface horizontal to the land) of over 2300 kWh/m2. Furthermore, ninety percent of the total area of Pakistan has GHI of over 1500 kWh/m2. Pakistan has 2.9 million megawatts of solar energy potential, but unfortunately the country is producing only approximately 700MW of electricity from solar source.
Secondly, PM Khan can cut crude oil imports for energy production. It will help the country save billions of dollars which can ultimately be utilized to fund renewable energy projects. The country spends $12 billion annually on the import of crude oil and 70 percent of it is consumed on power generation which also contributes to climate change. Yet there is another solution to finance green renewable power projects, that is, the issuance of green bonds! These climate bonds will promote investors to invest in environment-friendly projects by giving them tax incentives. In 2017, $161 billion worth of such securities were issued worldwide, which is turning them into one of the fastest growing asset classes. PM Khan should consider issuing triple-A credit quality of green bonds, so that more investors are attracted.
The government should also support microfinance banks across the country by giving them subsidies, so that they issue soft loans to their customers for installing off-grid solar power systems, which, on the one hand, will reduce burden on national grid and, on the other, country’s dependence on coal and oil for electricity will also see a substantial decline.
Finally, the ability to develop strict environment protection policies and then executing them in letter and spirit is the key to success. Climate change problem at a first glance looks easier to tackle, but it is harder than solving most economic problems. Plantation is not a solution by any means. Even planting wrong specie contributes to climate change. Majority of the trees which got planted under Imran Khan’s “Billion Tree Tsunami” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were poplar, eucalyptus and willow, which emit high levels of volatile organic compounds VOCs to protect themselves from bug infestation. These VOCs are hazardous to human health and their reactions with other air pollutants produce methane and ozone, which are powerful greenhouse gases.