Climate change: time is running out


The recent flash floods, of which global warming and resultant climate change are the main culprits, have affected 33 million Pakistanis and are expected to result in losses of more than $30 billion.

Unfortunately, using the alibi that we emit less than 1% greenhouse gases (GHG), we try to externalize the problem, claiming that other countries are solely responsible for the damage. Even 1% isn’t really a number we should brag about; it is, on the contrary, only a measure of our rudimentary industrial development in relation to those others. Also, these other countries are already on the road to correction, while we seem to have learned nothing from their experiments and mistakes.

This article is an attempt to understand the whole issue in a holistic way and its potential to affect our lives.

Back to basics

To go further, it is essential to describe some of the terms used above, such as greenhouse gases. Growing plants in controlled environments is an established practice. These houses are known as greenhouses, where the plants and the air are warmed by the sun’s rays and most of this heat remains trapped inside the house keeping it warm to the degree required for the plant growth. The same principle operates in the case of the earth’s atmosphere; the sun warms it during the day and the heat is returned to the atmosphere when the earth cools at night. Said heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which help keep the earth’s surface warm, making it livable.

What serves as the most vital variable in this arrangement are the individual concentrations of said greenhouse gases and their corresponding ability to retain and emit heat. However, the human-induced change in concentrations has increased said capacity, thus having increased the average temperature of the atmosphere or caused global warming.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide account for more than 79%, 16% and 6% of global man-made emissions respectively. However, their damage potential varies. While 40% of carbon dioxide still remains in the atmosphere after 100 years, methane only persists for just over 10 years – however, the impact of global warming caused by methane is 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over 100 years. years. In fact, the same for nitrous oxide goes up to 300 times. In addition, these gases cause warming and warmer air retains more water vapor; thereby increasing their ability to absorb and retain heat, thereby adding to the heat already caused by GHG emissions.

As a result of the above phenomena, between pre-industrial times and today, the Earth’s average temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. The resulting global warming causes heat waves, floods, sea level rise due to melting glaciers and increased ocean temperatures, etc. If left unchecked, the temperature above could reach 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Global Response

Population size, economic and industrial activity and its associated energy mix all determine man-made GHG emissions. Historically, and simultaneously with the industrial revolution, there is also a strong public mobilization for the preservation of the environment throughout the West.

By the late 1960s and mid-1970s, full-fledged green political parties and movements had emerged. The German Green Party even remained a coalition partner from 1998 to 2005. It is because of this awareness that since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the protection of the environment took center stage. The conference was followed by the Earth Summit in June 1992, held in Brazil, during which the UN established an international treaty on the environment. The resulting Kyoto Protocol implemented in 2005 set binding emission targets for 37 industrialized countries.

The protocol was later replaced by the Paris Agreement in 2015 with the main objective of limiting global warming preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The Pakistani response

According to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is among the 10 countries most at risk from the ravages of global warming and associated extreme weather events. Yet, we observe minimal awareness at any forum in this regard.

To develop the necessary infrastructure suitable for such events, we need 7 to 14 billion dollars per year. We all know our own budgetary constraints; while access to the different external climate finance options requires comprehensive professional capacity which we sorely lack.

By 2030, Pakistan aims to move to 60% clean renewable energy, including increasing hydel capacity by more than 50%, using 30% electric vehicles and completely banning imported coal, while focusing on the gasification and liquefaction of native coal.

The bigger question is not the lack of funds, but rather, where is this professional capacity to plan and implement the above fundamental change? Institutions serving in other countries and acting as drivers of these changes are entirely absent. Nothing describes our dismal state of readiness for the clean energy transition better than the World Economic Forum’s Global Energy Transition Index which ranks Pakistan 104th out of 115 countries, with a score of 49.

Another parameter reflecting a country’s attitude towards global warming is when its GHG emissions peaked and started to decline, or its future target for the same. While 19 peaked in 1990; the number would reach 57, covering 60% of global emissions by 2030. As for Pakistan; its GHG emissions have increased by 140% from 1990 to 2017 and are expected to increase by 300% in 2030 compared to their 2015 level.

In 2000, we signed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to achieve these goals by 2015; increasing forest cover was one of the main objectives. Pakistan, however, observed an erosion of 1% from 6% to 5% during the period. India and China, on the other hand, increased forest cover from 22.7% to 23.8% and from 18.8% to 22.3% respectively. No one would believe we started in 1947 with 33% coverage.

What needs to be done?

Currently, Pakistan faces an existential challenge that requires intensive and relevant knowledge, experience and leadership capacity. This can only be met effectively if Pakistan immediately turns the responsibility over to professionals, as the margins on threat response time are already exhausted.

The author is a petroleum engineer and oil and gas management professional

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7e2022.

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Teresa H. Sadler