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“Climate change is no longer a future threat. It is already here”

Interview with Dr Tariq Banuri

“Climate change is no longer a future threat.  It is already here”

Many people in Pakistan think the country does not have indigenous technical expertise to tackle the issue of climate change. However, the situation on ground is quite the opposite.

Dr Tariq Banuri is one of those people who have greatly contributed to addressing the problem of climate change and continue to do so. Dr Banuri began his career as a member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and later rose to heights in the field of sustainable development.

Hailing from Peshawar, Dr Tariq Banuri got a PhD in economics from the prestigious Harvard University and served in a number of positions, including as Director UN Division for Sustainable Development; founder and first Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and Director Asia Centre of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

He was also the coordinating lead author on the Nobel Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2002, he was also awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (SI) for his services to research and education. Dr Tariq Banuri joined the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) for a period of six months upon request by the government of Pakistan.

The challenge for us is to close the gap between our national interests and the global imperative of climate change. Financing is definitely one way of closing this gap.

In an interview with The News on Sunday, Dr Tariq Banuri highlights the climate challenges that Pakistan faces and the steps that need to be taken in order to protect the country from its impacts.

The News on Sunday: What are the climate challenges that Pakistan faces at the moment?

Dr Tariq Banuri: The challenges faced by Pakistan with regard to climate change are similar to those faced by most other developing countries, namely adverse impacts on human life, health, livelihoods, productivity, prosperity, and security.

In short, first, climate change is likely to lead to higher temperatures, greater frequency of extreme temperatures (especially heatwaves), some reduction in water availability (because of changes in precipitation as well as in glacier melt volumes), greater variation in water flows, greater frequency of extreme events (floods, hurricanes and droughts) and sea level rise. These impacts, combined, will affect agricultural productivity (the result of water stress, heat stress, changes in growing season length, changes in pest prevalence), and therefore economic growth as well as food security.

Second, the above conditions, combined with changes in the international economic and financial environment (also caused by climate change and attendant uncertainties) are likely to impact the development momentum adversely. One of the major concerns is the potential adverse impact of climate change and global climate policies on energy costs in developing countries. Cheaper and more convenient sources of energy will gradually have to be phased out, and reliance will be needed on newer and more sustainable forms of energy (solar, wind, bio-energy) as well as hydro and nuclear.

Another concern is about a future slowdown in global economic growth. This will affect aggregate global demand and will also change the pattern of global demand and global financial flows towards climate-friendly products. Exports of countries with more traditional market niches may be affected adversely. International finance will increasingly be focused on climate-related activities.

Finally, unfortunately, all this is not a temporary phenomenon, but will form the foundation of future economic development for a long, long time. Like other countries, if Pakistan does not learn to thrive in an environment defined by climate change, it will not be able to thrive at all.

The purpose of a research center like GCISC is to undertake or facilitate research and analysis that will identify emerging threats and opportunities, provide appropriate policy recommendations for the government, and technical information for other stakeholders.

TNS: What are your accomplishments as the Executive Director of GCISC?

TB: It is too early to talk about accomplishments as institutional building requires a much longer time. The then minister for climate change had asked for a diagnosis of the situation and the initiation of actions that will help place GCISC on a sound footing. These actions include:

Developing closer collaborative relationships with national and international experts and institutions working on various aspects of climate change. This has started. Since several national institutions are working in these areas, GCISC is in the process of formalising its collaborative relations with them. These include Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies (PCRET), Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF), Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Leadership for Environment & Development (LEAD) and others.

Mobilisation of university faculty and students. With the support of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), significant progress has been made in exploring collaborative relations with relevant centres, departments, and institutes in several key universities, including QAU, NUST, CIIT, NCP, MUET, NED, UETP, LUMS, GCU, AIOU, Bahria University, NDU, KIU, University of Peshawar, UAF, and others.

Introduction of quality enhancement measures and systems, together with capacity building support.

A number of steps have been introduced with a view to enhancing the quality and quantity of climate expertise at the service of the national agenda especially the inter-agency collaboration, reaching out international scholars which includes the Pakistani scholars as well.

TNS: Organising the Science-Policy Conference on Climate Change (SP3C) is no doubt an accomplishment for GCISC and with the Pakistan prime minister attending it shows the highest level of commitment on part of the government to adapt and mitigate climate change. However, installing coal-fired power plants to meet energy requirements can increase Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change.

TB: Here, I would refer you to the prime minister’s speech at the SP3C inaugural session. First, he set out with admirable clarity, the determinants of Pakistan’s climate policy, namely (a) protecting people’s lives and property (against climate-related threats), (b) promoting national economic growth and sustainable development, and (c) honouring Pakistan’s international commitments.

Second, the PM said that “Unfortunately” [this is his word, not paraphrased here], for reasons of portfolio diversity, we have to invest in some older technologies, including coal, but we will combine these with offsetting and mitigatory actions so that the net impact on climate change is positive. He went on to list a number of offsetting actions that the government has undertaken, including afforestation, renewable energy investments as well as those in hydro and nuclear energy, shift from furnace oil (and coal) to LNG, introduction of higher fuel efficiency standards and investment in public transport.

I am personally not in favour of coal technology at this point in our national development and global action, but the PM has made a logical point. And I would strongly support the PM’s call for offsetting and mitigatory actions.

TNS: Pakistan plans to increase its emissions as much as four times and demands US $40 billion from the international community to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, it wants US $7-14 billion to adapt to the phenomenon. Without the government proposing bankable projects to mitigate and adapt the climate phenomenon, do you think Pakistan will be able to access this much amount of climate finance?

TB: I think we need to look at the issue a little differently. We have already undertaken a number of actions that will reduce or offset some of the emissions load. These were highlighted at the SP3C plenary sessions, in the speeches by the PM, the minister for Climate Change, and the deputy chairman Planning Commission. Clearly, we have done so because we view these actions to be in our national interest.

The challenge for us is to close the gap between our national interests and the global imperative of climate change. Financing is definitely one way of closing this gap. But the purpose of international financing is not to build white elephants that will not be able to survive without external cash infusions. Rather the purpose is to leverage it into better and more permanent cost effective solutions.

I am also looking forward to the operationalisation of the National Climate Authority, which is supposed to provide leadership on the development of bankable projects. The SP3C discussions will have made the task a little easier for it.

TNS: Why are you heading back given that you are much needed here at GCISC, an institution which will help promote climate-related research in Pakistan, as the country is deficit of actionable research on climate change?

TB: No one is indispensable. But individuals can help in different ways. Today, GCISC is primed to work with individuals and institutions on their terms rather than through a take-it-or-leave-it approach. If the government thinks that the recent actions have been productive, I am sure they will inform me, and we will be able to find ways of contributing to the national agenda.

TNS: Please give us an overview of your work in the field of climate change.

TB: I am a professor in the Department of Economics, University of Utah, and currently stationed in Pakistan as the Executive Director of the GCISC, a statutory corporation established under the GCISC Act 2013. I was asked by Zahid Hamid, who was then the Federal Minister for Climate Change, to take a leave of absence from my University (the University of Utah) in order to place GCISC on a sound footing.

I started working on the issue of climate change in the early 1990s during the preparatory process for the first Rio Conference, 1992, because of which I was invited to join the IPCC, which later received the Nobel Peace Prize. My interest has been mainly on how developing countries could cope with climate change.

TNS: Any message you would like to give to the nation?

TB: Climate change is no longer a future threat. It is already here. And it is now a permanent condition. The country needs urgently to revamp its institutions and systems not only to be able to cope with the emerging threats but to be able to grow and prosper and achieve all major national targets in a world defined by climate change.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar

The writer is an environmental journalist. He Tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]

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