In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalized its Sixth Assessment Report, delivering a stark warning about the urgent need to address the impact of global warming. The report revealed that burning fossil fuels and unsustainable energy and land use have already caused global warming to reach 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It highlighted the significance of climate resilient development and the role of scientific, Indigenous, and local knowledge in tackling climate change.
As Pakistan grapples with political challenges and gaps in climate change priorities, there is a pressing need to bridge the gap in political leadership to pave the way for a more sustainable and climate-resilient future.
Pakistan is grappling with the frontline impacts of climate change, with devastating natural disasters like the 2022 floods affecting millions and submerging significant portions of the country. However, meeting Pakistan’s climate commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals remains a challenge amid the ongoing climate crisis. Furthermore, Pakistan’s air quality ranks it as the world’s third-most polluted country, adding to environmental concerns. Rapid urbanization, aligned with population growth, poses additional complexities.
In response, the National Adaptation Plan prioritizes initiatives revolving around five key objectives: mainstreaming climate adaptation across all levels of government, improving land regulation and planning for resilient services, bolstering climate-smart municipal services, leveraging nature-based solutions for climate risk management, and developing sustainable financial mechanisms for green and resilient urbanization.
However, while disaster risk management is critical, the country seems to prioritize it at the expense of developing basic infrastructure, which is equally crucial.
Pakistan faces myriad climate-related challenges, including the lack of clean water supplies, inadequate drainage systems, poorly managed rainwater, underdeveloped local public health systems, and vulnerable electricity infrastructure. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods exacerbate these challenges, affecting agriculture, livestock, human health, and overall wellbeing. To enhance resilience, the country must prioritize climate-resilient development and invest in infrastructure and systems that can withstand extreme weather conditions.
Climate change has not received the highest priority in policy discussions in Pakistan, with security, economic stability, and social welfare taking precedence. Political leaders often focus on short-term gains, resulting in inadequate implementation and enforcement of climate change policies. Additionally, insufficient budgetary allocations and lack of coordination between federal and provincial governments hinder effective climate action. Political parties must prioritize climate action in their policies, strengthen institutional mechanisms, and engage citizens to generate public support for ambitious climate initiatives.
In particular, while mega projects may promise economic benefits and infrastructure development, they can have severe environmental consequences. The Thar coal project in Pakistan serves as an example, where large-scale development initiatives risk diminishing the influence of local politicians, invading local culture, endangering cultural heritage, and compromising traditional values. To mitigate these risks, project planners and policymakers must prioritize the preservation of local culture and engage communities as active partners in decision-making.
The Thar coal project in Pakistan serves as a poignant case study highlighting the potential environmental and social consequences of large-scale development initiatives. Backed by a public-private partnership and under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, the project aims to utilize the vast coal reserves in Thar to address the country’s energy needs.
However, the project’s implementation has raised concerns about its impact on the environment, local communities, and cultural heritage. Coal-based power generation is known to contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change.
The project has also sparked concerns about deforestation, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Moreover, the influx of non-local workers and businesses associated with the project can disrupt traditional ways of life and cultural practices of the Indigenous communities, potentially leading to displacement and loss of livelihoods.
The diminishing influence of local politicians in shaping the Thar coal project’s direction further hinders representation and advocacy for the interests of the affected communities. Additionally, the project’s activities may endanger cultural heritage, risking the loss and degradation of ancient sites and traditional knowledge. To ensure a more sustainable and inclusive development paradigm, policymakers must prioritize environmental impact assessments, cultural heritage preservation, and the active involvement of local communities.
One of the significant challenges hindering effective climate action in Pakistan is the absence of empowered and effective local bodies. These grassroots-level institutions play a crucial role in understanding and addressing climate-related challenges specific to their regions. Possessing valuable Indigenous knowledge deeply rooted in the local environment, culture, and traditions, local bodies hold the key to developing context-specific climate adaptation and mitigation strategies that can effectively tackle the impacts of climate change at the community level. Indeed, the IPCC report underscored the importance of incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge into climate change initiatives.
However, the reluctance of leading political parties to transfer power to the three tiers of governance, particularly the local bodies, poses a significant hurdle in fully benefiting from this wealth of knowledge. When power and decision-making authority remain centralized at higher levels of government, the potential of utilizing Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge is severely limited. Consequently, policies and initiatives may not comprehensively address the unique vulnerabilities and needs of each area.
Communities are invaluable assets in climate resilience efforts, possessing unique perspectives, skills, and traditional knowledge. Engaging communities as partners, rather than mere beneficiaries, ensures their needs and priorities are better understood and addressed. Inclusive governance and collaboration between stakeholders at all levels are essential for successful and sustainable resilience-building initiatives. Furthermore, integrating climate education into the national curriculum fosters environmental responsibility and awareness from a young age.
Innovations in climate finance are instrumental in connecting communities and marginalized groups to necessary resources for locally relevant and effective development impacts. Blended finance, results-based financing, digital technologies, and knowledge sharing play vital roles in enhancing accessibility to climate finance opportunities. Empowering communities through these approaches fosters inclusivity, equity, and resilience in climate action.
As the effects of climate change continue to impact Pakistan and the world at large, building resilience and addressing the inequalities exacerbated by climate-related challenges must be a top priority. Political leaders must demonstrate strong commitment, empower local bodies, and engage communities as partners in the fight against climate change. By prioritizing climate action, integrating traditional knowledge, and implementing innovative approaches to climate finance, Pakistan can pave the way for a more sustainable and climate-resilient future for all its citizens.
The time for action is now, and political leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping a better world for future generations.