Erik Solheim is the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) since May 13, 2016. He has an extensive career focusing on environment and development in government and international organisations.
Erik Solheim was Norway’s Minister for Environment and International Development from 2007 to 2012. He takes pride in introducing and subsequently implementing its Nature Diversity Act, which is considered to be Norway’s most important environmental legislation in the last 100 years.
Solheim has also served as UNEP’s Special Envoy for Environment, Conflict and Disaster and a Patron of Nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In his first interview with The News on Sunday, Erik seemed hopeful to work with Imran Khan’s government and further the conservation agenda in Pakistan. Regarding the environmental issues that Pakistan is grappling with, Erik Solheim stood clear that all these environmental threats are man-made and that they can be solved by humans themselves.
The News on Sunday: Pakistan is among the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change even though its emissions are less than one per cent in the global carbon trajectory. What exactly Pakistan needs to do to build its resilience to climate change?
Erik Solheim: There’s no magic solution, no silver bullet. What Pakistan needs, just like other nations, is a package of diverse measures. For example, the challenges that will be faced in the Northern Areas are not the same as those in Sindh or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Still, there are general principles: Pakistan can build-in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategies into its development. That can apply to schools, hospitals, infrastructure and urban planning, for example. There also needs to be a focus on agriculture — for example how resilient is agriculture to fluctuations in water availability. There is also potential for reforestation work and action against deforestation, which will protect future generations and give them the benefits of the ecosystem-based services provided.
In addition, we need Pakistan’s voice on the global stage. It needs to be a champion of positive climate action. As you rightly say, Pakistan is paying the price for the carbon emissions of others. That’s an injustice that needs to be righted.
TNS: World Bank’s study reveals that 800 million people in South Asia currently live in areas that are projected to become moderate to severe hotspots by 2050, which includes Pakistan as well. What steps should the government of Pakistan take to avert this possible scenario?
ES: Many parts of the world, including Pakistan but also India and many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, are asking that same question. Once again, it’s about a package of measures that will allow us to adapt to a changing climate. We need to cut emissions. We need to secure water sources and manage them carefully. We need to plant more trees and protect existing forests. We also have to look at urbanisation and how we manage to cool buildings — for example there are district cooling solutions that are far more efficient than individual AC units.
TNS: The micro-econometric study by WWF-Pakistan has revealed that even with a 0.5°C rise in temperature, 8-10 per cent crop losses, equivalent to US $300 are witnessed across all crops except rice. Being an agrarian country, what steps should Pakistan take to protect the agriculture sector from the vagaries of climate change?
ES: There are three key steps. The first is better water management, and using the latest techniques, for example, drip-fed as opposed to rain-fed irrigation. Secondly, we need to pay greater attention to cold chains and supply routes – that is getting produce to markets and consumers. So much food is lost because it never gets to market and improving supplies is a win for farmers and for consumers, and increase effective yield. Thirdly, farmers must look at diversification, or experimenting with crops that are more climate resilient.
TNS: The new government has announced to plant 10 billion trees across the country and make the urban centres greener through plantation drives. How effective will this massive afforestation drive be in combating climate change?
ES: This initiative deserves widespread support. Tree planting is one of the best ways of reducing net carbon emissions. It can help reduce disasters caused by soil erosion, like flash floods. It can also help with its natural cooling effect in urban areas. The focus has to be on working with people. People must see and feel the benefits of such an initiative because if they do they will invest in it, and take ownership of the change. That’s the most important principle.
TNS: Pakistan is a country of over 200 million people. In remote areas where there is little to no electricity, forest wood is secured to meet energy requirements. The provincial government of Punjab has introduced commercial forestry in the wake of South Punjab Forest Company to encourage private investors to invest in forestry, so that wood-based requirements can be met. Can such initiatives help meet the national wood requirements and contribute to conserve the natural forests of Pakistan?
ES: Managed forestry is important in helping Pakistan meet its biomass needs but it should also be accompanied by other initiatives. If the need is driven by a lack of electricity, then the need is also to explore off-grid and micro-grid power solutions. That will also help build resilience in communities, and build a more inclusive, healthier economy.
TNS: Water has emerged to be one of the most serious issues of Pakistan. The National Water Policy of Pakistan did acknowledge that the per capita surface water availability has declined from 5,260 cubic meters per year in 1951 to around 1,000 cubic meters in 2016, and highly likely to drop further. How much importance should the government give to this issue?
ES: Water is a huge issue and obviously deserves enormous attention. Not only is there a risk of decline in water supplies but there’s also a likely increase in demand. Like all resources, we have to manage supply and demand. That means protecting and managing water sources, managing demand and making gains in efficiency.
TNS: In Pakistan there is a greater call to build large dams to address water scarcity and generate electricity. Can such mega structures be environmentally friendly?
ES: The problem with dams used for power generation is that in most cases they merely displace water scarcity from one place to another. Because water scarcity is such an important issue, any construction must be preceded by a comprehensive impact assessment. In addition, Pakistan can also look at other solutions – like solar and wind.
TNS: Pakistan’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) document submitted to UNFCCC, as part of its commitment to Paris Climate Agreement, states that in order to reduce up to 20 per cent of its projected emissions would require an investment of approximately US$40 billion and for adaptation the requirement is between US$7 to 14 billion annually. How will Pakistan be able to access these funds and what should it do? With researches of Hothouse Earth coming up, should Pakistan follow a carbon intensive trajectory?
ES: I think there are two key points here: Firstly, the world as a whole needs to close the finance gap. For that to happen, we also need the voice of Pakistan to ring out to richer nations and historic emitters.
Secondly, nations also need to see the shift to a low-carbon economy, as an investment and an opportunity. The countries right now that are making that shift already are reaping the rewards. Solar and wind means energy security, more jobs per dollar invested and cheaper power than coal, for example.
TNS: Over the past few years, various parts of Pakistan are getting affected from smog and a similar situation is witnessed on the other side of the border (in India). Is there a need for both countries to work together and formulate a regional action plan on air pollution in South Asia?
ES: I like to think that the environment is one area where any nation can work with another nation in a constructive, non-partisan way and that this can also build bridges. Certainly Pakistan and India are both facing similar challenges with air quality and both nations could benefit from sharing expertise.
TNS: The cities of Pakistan are witnessing horizontal expansion in the absence of land-use planning laws, as urban forests and green spaces are encroached upon to make concrete structures and housing colonies. Further, mushrooming of bigger cities is taking place along with increase in automobiles which is increasing congestion and also exacerbating health problems. What steps are needed to make Pakistani cities livable?
ES: Living in a city should not mean being condemned to an early grave. If we stick to that principle, then everything is possible. Land-use planning laws are also critical and will also help to improve cities – because when people have to live with constraints, they innovate. That’s what we need more off in urban planning: innovation. We need less of the tried old formula of cities clogged with traffic and where citizens are condemned to suffering from asthma.
TNS: 90 per cent of all the plastic that reaches the world’s oceans gets flushed through just 10 rivers, which include the mighty Indus River as well. What measures are required to reduce and eventually stop the flow of plastic into the Indus River, so that the contamination of world’s oceans can be reduced?
ES: We need action from governments to regulate the markets and ensure that there is a measure of what we call extended producer responsibility, or a situation where a manufacturer is responsible for the entire lifecycle of their product and the packaging. Through good policy, governments can encourage good practice. We need the private sector to step in and innovate, and propose more sustainable solutions. And we need consumers to make their voices heard.
The plastics problem is a waste management issue but in the medium and long-term we also have to see it as a waste problem, in that we’re simply inefficient and generating too much waste. The ultimate aim is that we all make the shift to a circular economy.
TNS: Citizens have a greater role to play to protect the environment and fighting climate change. What message would you like to give to the people of Pakistan?
ES: Protecting our planet and our environment does not mean sacrifice. It means opportunity. Everybody has a voice and a role to play, from the smallest gestures to the biggest decisions. It is simply a case of making the decision to do the right thing!
Syed Muhammad Abubakar is an international award-winning environmental writer with an interest in climate change, deforestation, food security and sustainable development. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]