Pakistan contributes a tiny share to the world’s carbon emissions yet it is among the countries most prone to the threat of climate change. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) recognized this threat and made tackling climate change a part of its manifesto. Assistant Editor Safety & Security Today, Umer Tariq sat down with Malik Amin Aslam, who is the architect of PTI’s environmental initiatives to better understand the government’s vision about environmental protection.
S&ST: You have a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA. How did your interest develop in the field of environment that led you to pursue a degree in environmental management?
After getting my electrical engineering degree, I did my MBA in International finance and subsequently worked in the power sector for a year. It was then that I realized that Pakistan was facing a lot of environmental challenges. I also realized that there is a lack of expertise in Pakistan to understand and deal with these challenges. So I shifted my career path and applied at Oxford University and got into an MSc Environmental Management program. At Oxford, the concept of education is very different and everyone has the chance to explore their interests. My interest at that time was in the domain of emissions and climate change.
S&ST: Your thesis at Oxford was on the utility of the “emissions trading” concept. Tell us about this concept and is this something that the government is working on to control pollution?
Emissions trading is something that can be applied in Pakistan. In my thesis, I compared two models of emissions trading. One was from Chile (a developing country), the other was from the United States. Emissions trading worked in the US, but did not work in Chile. My finding in the thesis was that if you don’t have proper checks and balances for emissions monitoring systems then the concept does not work and that is why it failed in Chile. It is very important to have credible data to start emissions trading. In Pakistan, our emission levels are not that high, but with the recent shift towards coal power plants emissions have risen. However, despite the increase, they are still low compared to other countries. Currently, Pakistan ranks 135th in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite our low emissions, emissions trading is a tool that can be used in Pakistan, but, as I have already said, for emissions trading to be successful we need to have the right monitoring systems and accurate data. We also initiated a study to see how we can use carbon pricing and emissions trading to shift towards a better green economy. The study was recently completed and it recommended that we can implement the concept of emissions trading. Right now we are working on it and we are likely to initiate it in Pakistan in the future.
S&ST: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) launched the Green Development Agenda back in 2013. How was this idea conceived?
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was the first party to launch the green development agenda. The main force behind it was Prime Minister Imran Khan. He is a leader who is very concerned about the future of our coming generations and the need to protect the environment. It was Prime Minister Imran Khan, who asked me to develop this Green Development Agenda. However, the major test after we launched this agenda and made it part of our party’s manifesto was to ensure its implementation once we got into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013. The implementation did happen and soon after the elections, the party Chairman asked me to assist the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa govt to develop a program based on the party’s Green Development Agenda.
S&ST: Can you highlight some key areas of PTI’s Green Development Agenda and the progress on them?
We had a very ambitious Green Development Agenda when we got into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We had about twelve different areas that we wanted to work on. We focused on forestry, as it was one of the main challenges for the province. Despite having 40% of Pakistan’s total forest cover, it was a province where forest resources had seen a sharp decline over the years. What we did was that we converted our green development agenda into concrete green targets. The idea behind setting these targets was to ensure that the government is focused on these targets and ensure that they are achieved within five years. One of the targets was related to forest cover and the government decided that it will increase the forest cover in the province by at least 2%. This was a huge challenge as it meant not only reversing deforestation but also increasing the forest cover. This is how the Billion Tree Tsunami project started. Another focus area was in the renewable sector. We initiated and completed the project to install 350 micro-hydro stations.
S&ST: PTI’s Billion Tree Tsunami project has won international acclaim. Have the benefits of this mass plantation begun to show?
Forest cover in the province was increased by as much as 6%. This figure is not our claim, this figure was part of a recent report launched by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Authority. Other international organizations also monitored the project. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its report on the “Impact of Billion Tree Afforestation Project on Biodiversity”, validated the results of the Billion Tree Tsunami. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was the independent third party performance auditor of the project and it appreciated the project activities, particularly the 85% survival percentage. The project also helped the province exceed its 348,400 hectares commitment to the Bonn Challenge by restoring 600,000 hectares of forests.
S&ST: Can you tell us something about the progress on the ’10 Billion Tree Tsunami’ project launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan last year. How difficult will it be to achieve goals set under the project in provinces where PTI is not in power?
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) meeting was held recently and it has finalized this project. The project will cost Rs 125 billion over the next four years. All provinces, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Islamabad Capital Territory are on board. All these entities are contributing 50% of funding to the project. To put it simply this is perhaps the only project that has the complete ownership of all the provinces. Our Ministry will be heading this project, but the work will be done in the respective provinces. All provinces have their plans for the implementation of the project. For instance, Sindh has a different plan because they have the Mangroves and Riverine Forests. Similarly, every other province has a plan according to its own needs. The fact that despite a very difficult economic situation we have got the funding for the project shows the political commitment to ensure that the project goes ahead smoothly. This commitment comes from the Prime Minister’s faith that this is a project for Pakistan’s future generations and is of utmost importance to help Pakistan fight the threat of climate change.
S&ST: Are you hopeful that you will be able to achieve the targets of the projects in the next four years?
Under the Phase-1 of the project, more than three billion saplings will be planted across the country in the next four years. The project will be reviewed after two years and the target will likely be up scaled.
S&ST: You have worked extensively in the field of environment. You have held the portfolio of Minister of State for Environment (2004-07) and have been the architect of many environment-related initiatives in the country. What are the major threats that Pakistan faces from climate change?
Climate change is a very serious threat to Pakistan. We are among the ten countries who are consistently on the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change. The National Communication, a scientific study, which was only recently completed shows that if adequate measures are not taken to mitigate the threat of climate change, we will be in a very precarious position. Temperatures will rise globally due to climate change, but the study shows that Pakistan will likely warm 1 degree more than the rest of the world. This will have serious consequences for our water resources, glaciers, weather pattern and monsoon.
S&ST: After the 18th amendment environment has also become a provincial subject and the federal government has little say in it, will this hamper our progress on environment related issues and climate change or will it make it easier to implement various policies in this regard (by respective provinces)?
The 18th amendment was a disaster when it comes to climate change. When the amendment came out, I wrote an article on how this has created a catastrophe for the environment in Pakistan. The environment does not recognize borders between provinces. Environmental challenges should be dealt with cohesively. Having said that, I am happy to add that all provinces have shown a commitment towards protecting the environment. I am hopeful that despite the hurdles created by the 18th amendment, we will be able to fight an effective war against climate change.
S&ST: Pakistan continues to rely heavily on thermal energy and the share of renewable is less than 3% in our energy mix. How serious is the need for a policy shift to encourage more investment in renewable?
There was a criminal law passed by the previous government through which they capped renewable energy from each province at 50 megawatts. This was despite the fact that in the past five years the cost of producing renewable energy has come down sharply, but we could not take advantage of it. We have removed the 50 megawatts cap and this will help accelerate investments in the renewable sector.
S&ST: There is a view that haphazard and inconsistent policies are a major hurdle to investment in renewable sector. Do you agree with this view and what is the vision of the PTI-government with regards to renewable energy?
I also agree that policies for the renewable sector have not been consistent. If anything the policies have been consistently flawed. We have removed these flaws and the Ministry of Energy will soon come up with a new policy for the renewable sector.
S&ST: Lack of proper water management is a major issue that Pakistan is facing, however, the debate in Pakistan has been primarily focused on construction of new dams. How important is water conservation and better water management?
We have to construct new dams and at the same time, we also have to focus on water conservation and management. Right now Pakistan wastes about 40 million acre-feet (MAF) of water every year. During the flood period, around 40 million acre-feet (MAF) of water passes Tarbela and eventually finds its way to the Arabian Sea. We are launching a project called recharge Pakistan. Under the project, the 40 million acre-feet (MAF) of water which is now being wasted, will be diverted towards 15 wetlands on the banks of Indus River. During flood, water will be diverted to these wetlands and they will recharge the groundwater reservoirs.
S&ST: In major urban centers ground water reservoirs or aquifers are depleting at alarming rates, do you think that unregulated extraction of underground water is also a serious issue?
We have developed building guidelines to ensure that rainwater harvesting is part of every building plan. Once these guidelines are approved from the cabinet, they will be made part of building codes. This will help us recharge aquifers and reverse their rapid depletion.
S&ST: What climate change solutions are you most excited about?
I am most passionate about tree plantation. I think it is one of the easiest solutions to mitigate the threats posed by climate change. According to research done at Oxford University, planting trees is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis. Another research pointed out that there are currently more than three trillion trees on Earth and if we add another one trillion trees, we can mitigate the effects of emissions that have caused climate change. This solution may sound too simplistic, but it is one of the best solutions. Pakistan as a country is also contributing to it and we have also signed up for the one trillion tree challenge of the world.
S&ST: Is there a need to improve environment literacy by including environment related issues in our school curriculum?
It is indeed very important. We have to sensitize our younger generation about the need to protect the environment. We have already had a curriculum change in this regard in the Islamabad Capital Territory. We will extend it to the rest of the country once we have ample feedback.
S&ST: How do you see the role of media in creating awareness on environment related issues?
The media has to actively engage in raising awareness regarding environmental issues. Media is a powerful tool and it can greatly help in raising awareness regarding the need to protect the environment and the dangers of climate change.
S&ST: You recently announced that an electric vehicle policy has been formulated to give a new direction to the transport sector. Isn’t the plan too futuristic considering that local auto manufacturers are least interested in bringing newer technologies to Pakistan? Then there is also the question concerning the cost of these vehicles, which for now is extremely high?
Electric vehicles are indeed expensive, but can we afford not to embrace the future? All major global automakers are shifting towards electric vehicles. Despite the global inclination towards electric vehicles, we were not in the picture. We have now created a policy under which we will lower the duties, taxes and allow manufacturers to invest in Pakistan. One of the major costs of electric vehicles is batteries. We are providing incentives so at least the battery manufacturing can start in Pakistan which will help reduce the cost of electric vehicles.
S&ST: The use of plastic bags has been banned in the federal capital and an enforcement campaign has been very successful. Do you think in the coming three to four years this ban can be implemented across the country (by the respective provincial governments)?
The ban on plastic bags was introduced in the past as well by other governments, but it did not succeed. We studied previous laws and why they were not successful and then brought new legislation for Islamabad based on successful international models. We hope to extend the ban on the use of plastic bags to the rest of the country in the future.
S&ST: PET bottles are also a major threat to environment. Although they are recyclable, but not even half are actually recycled. The micro-plastics from these bottles are already finding their way into the human food chain. What can be done to curb the dangers of PET bottles which are almost as dangerous as plastic bags?
In Pakistan, almost 90% of plastic bottles are recycled. But I think they should also be phased out and we will look into it.
S&ST: In a nutshell, what message would you give to the public on the importance of fighting climate change? My message to everyone would be to step out and plant trees. Prime Minister Imran Khan has called on all
Pakistanis to plant at least two trees. If everyone does that it would be a starting point to insulate Pakistan from the threat of climate change.