Tuesday, November 25, 2008
More environmental initiatives
In last week’s column, I proposed a number of legislative measures that should be taken to improve the efficiency of our environmental enforcement mechanisms. The protection of our local environment and an awareness of the affects of Climate Change are of the utmost importance. Globally, the economic crisis has put the concept of sustainable development on centre-stage. There are now discussions of just how realistic a “green” economy can be. As Pakistanis we owe it to ourselves and the future generations, who will suffer the effects of climate change, to be aware and practice of what means to be environmentally-friendly.
At the moment, there is total lack of awareness of what environmental problems and climate-change issues face Pakistan. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that the word “environment” when employed in Urdu as “mahaul” is not correct. Mahaul and mahauliyat convey a different meaning in Urdu than in English. It is not for nothing that many a local “environmentalist” seldom goes beyond planting trees or cleaning up litter. Wo mahaul saaf rakh rahein hain.
Another challenge is how, too often, we compartmentalise climate change, the environment and, say, health. For example, the Ministry of Health is responsible for premature child deaths. A World Bank study states that in Pakistan some 22,000 premature child deaths a year are caused by air pollution. This is the air pollution in our cities caused, primarily, by the burning of fossil fuels in the transport sector. The burning of fossil fuels is, according to Pakistan’s own Initial Assessment of Climate Change, responsible for roughly half of Pakistan’s total CO2 emissions. These CO2 emissions are responsible for climate change. But nowhere is the Ministry of Health connected to the Ministry of Environment. And in no way is the Ministry of Environment in touch with the Ministry of Transport. Our bureaucrats may be the best and most seasoned of professionals (and may Allah grant them greater glory and more plot allotments), but if the system they have to work in – the Federal Government Rule of Business – doesn’t help them, a rational approach to the environment and climate change is unlikely. I should mention that the Rules of Business, the document which sets out the manner in which the Federal Government operates, was written in 1973. This was before I was born. To think that, in my lifetime, no one has come up with a better way of running government is shocking.
The Ministry of Environment should take the initiative and begin examining the failures in the very structure of our government. It needs to undo the compartmentalisation mentality in government. By keeping climate change as a priority, the ministry should investigate to determine if there are better ways of designing a government structure.
The prospect of climate change often seems insurmountable. After all, what will turning off a light bulb do to slow the alarming rate at which polar icecaps are melting? How can not using plastic bags keep Bangladesh and the Maldives from sinking into the Indian Ocean?
The fact is that activism on environmental issues and climate change has gone beyond merely personal obligations. The challenges posed by these issues now permeate into government responsibility on the national and international level. I know we have a tendency, counterintuitive that it is, to fall into the mistaken belief that government is responsible for the public good. We continue to hold this belief despite the fact that, as a rule, our governments only fail our expectations. But the environment is an issue that offers redemption. It is incumbent on government, in the larger interests of its citizens, to take the environment seriously and begin taking stock of what is required to meet the challenges of climate change.
Just as a better understanding of the environment forces a better understanding of unseen connections – the linkage between premature death, air pollution, transport and climate change being a perfect example, a better understanding of climate changes forces us to appreciate global unconnectedness. Take Bangladesh, for example. In 2006, Bengalis emitted less than 0.3 tonnes of carbon per capita. In comparison, the average US citizen emitted 6 tonnes of CO2. That polar ice caps are melting because of climate change is not disputed. But millions upon millions of Bengladeshi citizens are going to be effected by rising sea levels and their contribution to global climate change is negligible! The Maldives is expected to be completely submerged by 2050. Recently, the prime minister of the Maldives launched a proposal whereby a portion of the country’s tourism revenue is to be set aside for the acquisition of real estate. That’s correct: the Republic of the Maldives and its 350,000 inhabitants are planning to shift. But where are the more than 130 million Bangladeshis going to go? Do the Indian and Burmese economies have the capacity to deal with such a refugee situation? To what extent are developed countries, whose emissions over the past century and a half are the cause for the current state of the earth’s environment, responsible for indemnifying the losses to be suffered? The environment and climate change are the means by which these hitherto unseen connections have been identified. What is to be done remains a topic of international debate today.
Because of these seemingly intractable international equity issues that arise within the context of climate change, countries routinely take their best and brightest to international conferences. International treaties are negotiated by armies of professional lawyers, environmentalists, economics, scientists, diplomats and experts. One of Pakistan’s proud sons, the climate-change specialist and blogger Adil Najam, once told me that some European countries took over a hundred negotiators each to the table at the international climate-change conference at Bali last year. The Pakistani contingent could be counted on one hand. How can we hope to carve out a place on the international level? How can we get equity without an army of experts of our own? The Ministry of Environment should be busy finding and trainings its own army of experts to forge a way in these international conferences. Only by being smarter and better prepared than western countries does Pakistan stand a chance is getting its fair share. At the moment, with the exception of the brilliant Furrukh Iqbal Khan and a handful of others, the fate of Pakistan lies in the hands of bureaucrats from the DMG who are lucky enough to be assigned a junket.
The Ministry of Environment should take the initiative and launch a large-scale climate- change awareness programme within the existing structure of government. We are beyond the specious argument that environmental regulation will detrimentally affect the development of our economy. We are beyond the mistaken belief that the cap-and-trade system is a licence for developed countries to continue polluting. It is my belief that a “green” economy is Pakistan’s only option for future development. The environment and climate change are the most pressing issues of our time. And if anyone thinks the Ministry of Environment has nothing to do, they need to think again. The massive responsibility of organising our government on these issues is squarely balanced on their shoulders. Climate change is no longer just a personal commitment to the environment. Mitigation and adaptation strategies must be our government’s commitment to the people. By not taking these initiatives, the ministry is letting down the Pakistani people.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx. net.pk