Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam
Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam Image Credit: Supplied

As Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government continues to work to establish a Naya Pakistan, there is much that needs to be highlighted. The process of rebuilding a country is long, uphill, challenging, sometimes exhilarating, occasionally disappointing. Some initiatives immediately stand out while others need time to manifest results.

One of Khan’s pledges to the nation was a Clean Green Pakistan. Khan’s announcement in September 2018 to initiate the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme received national and international attention.

Officially, the “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme Phase-I is a four-year (2019-2023) project by government of Pakistan with the total cost of 125.1843 billion [rupees]. The project is being implemented across Pakistan by the Ministry of Climate Change along with provincial and territorial forest and wildlife departments.”

While most of the Pakistanis hailed it as an initiative essential for Pakistan’s short- and long-term wellbeing, the naysayers and Khan haters mocked it as too ambitious. Much is to be done. Much has been achieved in the last one year. Ministry of Climate Change reports: “During the global COVID-19 pandemic, the forest and wildlife departments provided green jobs through green stimulus to 84,609 daily wagers under the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme. A total plantation target of 430 million was achieved and a total of 1 billion plantation target is set for June 30, 2021.”

Teams of dedicated professionals and local communities are working to make the Herculean promise of ten billion trees and their subsidiary projects a green reality. Prime Minister Khan’s encouragement and personal attention remain consistent. It is the leadership of one man that is making the dream of a greener Pakistan a reality, one tree at a time, the idea of a cleaner Pakistan a possibility, one environment friendly step at a time: Federal Minister of Climate Change and Special Adviser to Prime Minister of Pakistan Malik Amin Aslam. Climate change is too important to be ignored, and Aslam is just the man to change the entire discourse and work on the effects of climate change in Pakistan and the steps being taken for its mitigation.

With an MBA from McGill and an M.Sc. from Oxford University, Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam is described on the World Bank website as “honorarily serving as the elected Global Vice-President of International Union for Conservation of Nature. He has previously chaired the flagship ‘Green Growth initiative’ for the KPK in Pakistan, which included the mass ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ forestation project. From 2002-07, he served as a Member of Parliament and from 2004-07 as the minister of state for environment (Government of Pakistan) and, in this capacity, has been the architect of the country’s national policies on environment and climate change. During this period [he] worked as the prime minister’s special envoy for reform of the UN governance system. [He] has also had the privilege of chairing the G77+China negotiations group and leading Pakistan’s climate change negotiations at various COP meetings since 1999.”

I asked Malik Amin Aslam a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Pakistan is a signatory to the Paris Agreement. What are Pakistan’s biggest challenges as a developing country to achieve the goals set by the global accord “to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future?”

Malik Amin Aslam: Pakistan is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, but we are a country that is very low on the emissions front. We contribute less than one percent of the global emissions. Pakistan is 135th on the index of countries of per capita emissions. On the other hand, Pakistan is a country that is highly impacted by climate change. In 2021 we are eighth on the list. Pakistan is one of the three countries that for a few consecutive years has been in the list of the top ten most vulnerable countries. Pakistan is a continuously impacted country in terms of climate change although we don’t contribute to the problem. We are on the wrong end of climate justice.

In terms of the challenges that we face adaptation finance is the biggest one. Pakistan is a country that has to adapt to climate change. It is not a luxury but a necessity for us. We are forced to adapt, and that puts a strain on our economy. The official estimate is that we have to spend about 6 to 14 billion dollars a year on adaptation. Our own funds. Access to this finance is a huge problem. Although the developed countries under the Paris Agreement have agreed to make a yearly contribution of 100 billion dollars–which itself is a not a big amount–for developing countries, even that small amount is not being delivered. And countries like Pakistan that are very seriously and deeply impacted by climate change have to take out funds from their already strained economies to adapt to climate change. Pakistan, nonetheless, is a country that is taking positive climate action as we don’t want to be part of the problem but be part of the solution.

Our two-pronged strategy on climate change is to push for clean energy, and for that we have set a target of 60 percent clean energy by 2030. We also plan to shift towards electric vehicles, 30 percent by 2030. At the same time, we are shifting away from a coal-based economy towards a renewable [bio-based] economy. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Khan our government has already taken a few concrete steps to do that, one of them being closing down 2,600 megawatts of signed up coal power and shifting to 3,700 megawatts of hydropower.

The second tier of our strategy for climate action is focused on nature-based solutions, in which our Ten Billion Tree project is included. Our goal is the restoration of over one million hectares of forest. We also have the Protected Areas Initiatives for expansion of our protected areas; in just eight months our national parks have increased from 30 to 45.

This two-pronged strategy that is self-financed by Pakistan shows that we are a responsible country that is working to be, as I said, the part of the solution and not be part of the problem on climate change.

MT: Lahore and a few other cities of Pakistan are among the 50 most polluted cities of the world. What are the short- and long-term steps the government of Pakistan have taken for improvement in air quality for reduction of PM 2.5?

MAA: Smog in Lahore is certainly a big issue. Our government has taken quite a cohesive and planned approach to tackle the problem. Firstly, we did a smog apportionment study to find out the origin of the smog. We have discovered that 40 percent of the smog is due to vehicular emissions. Other factors that contribute to the smog include industrial emissions and crop burning that happens around Lahore. Then there is a very large portion of cross border smog that comes in when the wind direction [from India] is towards Pakistan.

For the transport sector we have taken two substantial steps. One, Pakistan has shifted to Euro V from Euro II, which was a polluted fuel at 1992 level. In one leap we moved from Euro II to Euro V. Today all the fuel available in Lahore is Euro V standard. It causes 60 percent less pollution.

On the transport side, we have also come up with our first electric vehicle policy, which is now being implemented. We hope to become a manufacturer of electric vehicles, focusing in particular on two and three wheelers that are already on the road. Electric vehicles mean contributing 20 percent less emissions.

For crop burning, we have tried a pilot exercise with the Happy Seeder. It is a machine that shreds the crop and then ploughs it back into the ground, thus saving water for the farmer. It also saves the cost of putting in the next crop as well as avoiding burning of stubble. The pilot exercise was very successful. Now we plan to expand the use of the Happy Seeder machines all over Punjab. InshaAllah, this will greatly help address the smog problem.

For industrial emissions, in particular that of steel mills, scrubbers have made mandatory. All steel mills have now added industrial scrubbers, and we will ensure that they run the scrubbers.

Cross-border pollution is a regional issue, in my opinion. Unfortunately, our neighbour is not appearing on any regional platform. We have tried the SAARC and SACEP platforms to [begin] talks to ensure that India replicates the steps that Pakistan is taking because unless that happens we will continue to have this problem of smog coming in from India. I think this is something that needs to be addressed at the regional level.

We are considering new regulations for dust control. That is to ensure that small dust particles, especially during construction work, are controlled. These particles also contribute to the smog problem.

In Pakistan, in Lahore to begin with, the Punjab Green Development Program has been launched. It is a $270 million World Bank financed initiative of our government. It includes setting up of at least ten high quality monitoring stations in Lahore covering the whole of the city to give us clear air quality readings. At the moment, the available air quality readings are from small units with very low radial efficiency, and that is why the readings are not 100 percent accurate. Our plan is to improve the range and quality of the readings so that we are aware of the exact level of the problem before we fully address it. These ten monitoring stations, hopefully, will be set up in Lahore during 2021.

MT: Is the government working on the formation of a viable strategy to ban the usage of plastic bags all over Pakistan without hurting the local manufacturers?

MAA: Pakistan has a very clear strategy: we want to get rid of plastic [bags]. As federal government we started with very clear regulations, which were passed and enforced in Islamabad. The process was quite successful as it included a phased ban on producers, users and retailers of plastic bags. We have had to slow down during the pandemic as single use plastic bags made a comeback all over the world, including in Pakistan. But since March 1 the plastic ban has been re-enforced. The idea behind the implementation of the regulation in Islamabad was to show that banning plastic bags was possible. The alternative is the use of jute, paper and cloth bags. That step has created a cottage industry for women; they make these bags and sell them in the market.

Our work in Islamabad has encouraged the provinces to come up with a pilot or a model regulation. The plastic bag ban is being followed in Punjab, Sindh, KP and Balochistan. The idea was to do it in Islamabad and catalyse it for the rest of Pakistan. It is important to remember that implementation of this ban is a provincial prerogative.

MT: What are the key aspects of Prime Minister Khan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Programme?

MAA: The key aspect of prime minister’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme is to increase the forest cover. Almost 60 percent of this programme is focused on assisted natural regeneration; with the help of the local communities we will protect our existing natural forests and allow them to regenerate. Presently, there is negative regeneration, which means that they do not regenerate at all because of the pressures they face. But with community protection, that is jobs given to the local people to protect the forests, the assisted natural regeneration will occur. That is the 60 percent of our target. The rest of the 40 percent is through planned forestation, which means planting new forests.

Through both these initiatives we plan to restore over one million hectares of forest in Pakistan. This is a clear target that we have taken up and, inshaAllah, we will achieve it.

In the first phase of the Ten Billion Tree programme we are looking at planting 3.2 billion trees by 2023. This target of the PC I of the project includes all the seven parts of Pakistan: Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, KP, GB, AJK, and the Islamabad Capital Territory. Different regions have different plans because of their different ecologies. For instance, there is natural forest in KP, scrub forest in Punjab, riverine forest in Sindh, and mangrove forest in Sindh and Balochistan. All sorts of forests are included in the programme.

The federal government will give 50 percent of the funding, and the rest will be the responsibility of the respective provincial government. What is very important is that this is not a politically divisive project. It is rather a project that is politically integrating all of Pakistan under one umbrella. Sindh governed by an opposition party is also part and parcel of the programme.

There are very interesting dimensions to the Billion Tree programme. Our recent initiative is the Billion Tree Honey project: setting up plantations that are conducive to production of honey and allowing communities to participate in collection of honey from various projects.

We have also started the Olive Tree Tsunami. Olive orchards will be set up in areas that are conducive to olive growth. Management of the orchards will later be given to the private sector.

We have, under the same umbrella of the Billion Tree, started a chilgoza project in Balochistan. Indigenous chilgoza pine forests will be community protected; chilgoza harvesting will benefit the communities as income while they protect the forests to grow.

There are a number of interesting dimensions based on our two main objectives: protection of nature and extending the forest cover, and to provide green jobs to people who live and thrive in these forests.

MT: Which areas of Pakistan have suffered from the worst deforestation, and which cities are facing an alarming depletion of trees due to unplanned urbanisation?

MAA: Riverine belts are the most highly deforested areas in Pakistan. I was also surprised at this fact. Most of us think of the northern part of Pakistan when we think of deforestation, but the figures show that 40 percent of deforestation occurs in the riverine areas. That is something we are really focusing on, especially in Sindh. We have a target of 50,000 acres of new riverine forest plantation through flood seeding. Throw the seeds just before the floods, and when the rivers expand the forests grow.

Some urban areas are also badly hit due to deforestation. Lahore is a case in point where in the last decade 70 percent of the city’s green cover was shaved off. And that is one of the main reasons for the smog that covers Lahore. Also, Karachi has become a concrete jungle and now suffers from the heat island effect. We saw the loss of 2,000 lives due to the heat island effect in 2015. Both these cities need expansion of their green cover.

We are starting a Miyawaki forest drive for these urban centres. The Japanese model Miyawaki forests are small forests; they grow ten times faster because of the selection of trees. They store more carbon and have more biodiversity. We are starting it in small patches: in Lahore at 50 sites, in KP at 100. During my recent visit to Karachi I told the relevant authorities to identify the sites so that we could start the Miyawaki forest drive there.

We also plan to plant large forest tracts in urban areas. In urban Sindh, 5,000 acres are being planted. In Lahore, 5,000 acres, in Quetta, 2,000 acres.

MT: How can the underprivileged people of Pakistan, more than 50 percent of the population according to the official figures of people living under and barely above the poverty line, be weaned from burning wood for cooking purposes?

MAA: What we have done for natural forests is that we allow the local communities to take fuel wood. That does not involve cutting of trees; it is just shaving off the branches or collecting the branches that fall off. We allow them to collect the fuel wood, and in return, they give their word to protect the forest. They are also given jobs as nighe-baan (guardians); the community appoints the nighe-baan. They collect fuel wood, appoint a nighe-baan, and become stakeholders in our process for protecting the forest as a guardian.

We also provide the alternative fuel wherever possible–Sui gas or LPG. That is an expensive option but wherever it is possible we provide the alternative fuel to [underprivileged] communities.

MT: Is it possible for your ministry to do a collaboration with the ministry of science and technology to have solar-powered stoves that could replace wood in old fashioned cooking arrangements?

MAA: Yes, it is certainly possible to opt for solar-powered stoves. We are already providing fuel efficient stoves to various parts of our forest communities. These fuel-efficient stoves recycle the hot air that is released out of the stoves to ensure that the high efficiency of the burning. It uses one third the wood consumed by a normal stove. We have the option of solar-based stoves in some places, but with the aid of science and technology we can definitely expand the process.

MT: Are the coal-fired plants set up in Pakistan with Chinese assistance using clean coal technology?

MAA: The Chinese coal power plants are using cleaner coal technologies. Our government is absolutely focused on moving away from imported coal projects. Our prime minister has made a commitment to the international community that there will be no more imported coal projects. We just closed two imported coal projects of 2,600 megawatts, which were signed off in Muzaffargarh and Rahimyar Khan, and shifted to 3,700 megawatts of hydropower projects–clean zero carbon and sustainable for Pakistan.

MT: What is the real story behind the recently viral video of cutting down mango orchards in Multan?

MAA: The real story behind the Multan mango massacre, as it is being called, is that we have had little or no part to play in that. It was a privately-owned property, private orchards that were outside the agriculture designated zoning. People wilfully sold them to various housing societies that acquired the approvals for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in the time of the previous government. Then they started cutting the trees. What we have done is we are getting the EIAs checked. That is to ensure that if there was a condition that they agreed to–that they would not cut the trees–and are now contravening that condition, legal action will be taken. But as I said, these were private farms wilfully sold to housing societies, which later cut the orchard trees.

Interestingly, even that does not fall under any forestry law because of the private ownership of the orchards. There is no legal restriction in cutting down a private orchard and putting it to other agricultural uses. The one requirement is to get zone conversion, from agriculture to housing. That approval was also obtained during the tenure of the previous government. We are checking. to ensure that there is no legal contravention; if that is the case, we will certainly take action.

MT: Pakistan’s government responded to the appeal of local animal NGOs who in a campaign led by UK’s Four Paws and Cher’s Free the Wild succeeded in the heart-warming relocation of Kaavan “the world’s loneliest elephant” to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia. It is a story of incredible human empathy for the suffering of a wild animal who should never have been kept in a zoo for so long. Would your government be interested in doing the same for other elephants, lions, tigers and other wild animals locked up in zoos living in painful neglect bordering on cruelty? Make wildlife sanctuaries in Pakistan if the process of translocation of animals is too cumbersome and too expensive for a developing country like Pakistan? Would Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government ever consider the idea of closing all zoos in Pakistan and moving all caged wild animals to specially made sanctuaries in areas suitable for their free and happy existence?

MAA: Our government believes in completely moving away from the colonial concept of caged zoos of exotic species and go towards open air sanctuaries for local indigenous animals. [In that context] the Islamabad zoo is closed and is being turned into an open caged sanctuary of indigenous species.

Mehr Tarar, Special to Gulf News-1592296810288