Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government came to power with a manifesto that urged action on climate change. It underlined the Billion Tree Tsunami project initiative, which the PTI government completed while ruling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province from 2013 to 2018, and claimed that similar projects would be initiated across the country once it came to power.

However, after almost four months in power, the government has little to show on the climate change front. And the gravity of the matter was underlined by Pakistan’s delegation at COP24, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland. There the advisor to the prime minister on Climate Change, Malik Amin Aslam reiterated that the country was “running out of time.”

A major problem for Islamabad is the lack of a governance model in place to tackle climate change challenges. This is what prompted the World Bank to cancel a US$250-million loan after it couldn’t agree on a macroeconomic framework earlier this week.

Germanwatch’s ‘Global Climate Risk Index 2018’ puts Pakistan as the seventh most vulnerable state in regard to climate change. Effects of climate change cost Pakistan $384 million last year even as the country struggled with its national debt.

These costs stem from droughts and floods which damage agriculture and water supplies, along with prodigious temperature variations which take a toll on the masses. This year’s heatwave was another ominous reminder of the impact of climate change in the country, with the Pakistan Meteorological Department issuing temperature warnings in Karachi in May and June.

Few greenhouse gas emissions

Pakistan’s growing vulnerability to climate change is despite the country contributing less than 1% of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. And yet Islamabad is struggling to gather support for a crisis it has had little part in creating.

In addition to governance issues, there is a lack of drive to address climate change. “Unlike developed countries, climate change isn’t really an issue that is debated during elections here. There aren’t too many political points on offer and hence the lack of will,” a government official confessed.

Others argue that even if the will was there, as things stand, Islamabad simply doesn’t have the capacity to address climate change.

“We are bankrupt, we don’t have any money,” former Ministry of Climate Change secretary Syed Abu Ahmed Akif told Asia Times. “The government didn’t have enough money to pay the salaries of [the climate change ministry]. When I left there was only 700 million [Pakistani] rupees [$5 million] in the entire climate change sector – out of a budget of PKR 1,000 billion [$7.2 billion].”

“We are also additionally vulnerable because of our population. Other countries don’t have 200 million people. Plus there is a lack of education. If you build houses in the middle of a river, where there is flooding, [so] of course, you will be affected,” he added.

“Another major issue is capacity. We don’t have qualified people – those who are qualified are overseas because there isn’t any enabling environment in Pakistan. When I was in charge, the World Bank complained about a certain officer who was stealing. I removed him, but that angered the minister because he was very close to him. Once we sort our political order we won’t be able to embrace future challenges.”

Officials said another issue was responsibility for climate-related issues being downgraded. As part of the 18th amendment to the Pakistani Constitution in 2010, environmental issues became matters that provincial administrators must deal with.

“In reality, however, that is not the case. The federal government never takes the provincial governments on board for events like the COP for instance, where none of the provincial representatives are present,” said Punjab Environment Protection Authority director Tauqeer Qureshi.

Qureshi also criticized the performance of the PTI government in Punjab. “There is no will to work. The PTI government is absolutely clueless about climate change. They lack comprehension beyond their so-called billion tree tsunami. The idiots don’t even know what our environmental issues are. They will destroy Punjab. The entire environmental sector needs reform and the need to tackle vested interests, who aren’t letting others do their job.”

World Bank project

“For instance, a $273-million project was agreed with the World Bank [called the Punjab Green Development Programme], but the Punjab government isn’t even initiating it because government insiders have close relations with industry leaders who don’t want climate change action, as it would impact their profits.”

Akif, meanwhile, notes that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), is adding to Pakistan’s climate change challenge.

“Granted our carbon emissions are negligible, but we haven’t really focused on addressing what we do produce. So when China offers coal plants as part of CPEC, we happily accept it, because we’d be able to use the indigenous coal from Thar,” he said.

“Every development project has its impact on the climate. When trucks move, they emit smoke. That’s what the developing countries have been arguing with the developed world, which did all the construction when they got the opportunity in the industrial age, but now want to bar our development.”