Talk about rising temperatures is linked with the concept of global warming. This phenomenon is about slow increase in average temperature of the earth because an increased amount of sun’s heat striking the earth is trapped in the atmosphere. The issue is not that too much heat is reaching us but that it is not being reflected back. Reasons include presence of Green House Gases (GHGs) because they act like a greenhouse used to obtain required temperatures.
Such gases are produced due to practices like burning of fossil fuel, emission of gases like Carbon Dioxide (CO2), suspended particles produced during burning, etc. They trap sun’s energy. The absence of green cover aggravates the situation because trees absorb CO2 and, thus, reduce its presence in the atmosphere.
Like some other countries, Pakistan is also facing rise in temperature that has had a direct impact on the lives of people inhabiting both urban and rural areas. The manifestations of these impacts that are mostly negative include intense rains, leading to floods because more water evaporates to form clouds, hurricanes harming coastal cities because of warming of sea surface, desertification and mass migration of people to large cities that are already populated, the urban heat island effect caused by heating of concrete structures and heat retention, heatwaves, etc.
Many people in their 40s and above can recall they had to wear blazers in school in October but today they cannot till the month of December sets in.
The question is how one can identify reasons leading to these problems and ways to deal with them in a pragmatic way. Even though it is difficult to revert the damage, there is a need to go for adaptation, change in lifestyle and introduction of climate-smart urban planning.
Naveed Iftikhar Cheema, urban and economic policy advisor based in Islamabad, says Pakistanis are suffering due to a rise in average temperature. “The negative effects include lack of access to safe drinking water and diseases caused by abnormally high temperatures. Children, senior citizens and under-nourished women suffer more due to their comparatively weaker immunity.”
Cheema terms emissions of cars and industries, use of air conditioners, cutting of trees and encroachment on green cover in cities and non-sustainable practices in agriculture major reasons for rise of temperature in cities. “Rising temperature restricts mobility of people, especially poor segments of society who have to work outside or walk and travel by public transport available in Pakistan.”
Cheema suggests better urban planning and simple changes in lifestyle can reduce such effects. “For example, Pakistan needs to improve the density of cities. Cars should be reduced while improved pedestrian walkways and efficient public transport must be introduced in urban centers.”
One step that needs to be taken on an emergency basis, he says, is adoption of urban forestry, meaning massive plantation in cities and demarcation of green areas. “Fortunately, Punjab is working on an urban forest policy that binds citizens, industry, etc, to plant a certain number of trees. Besides, the policy calls for designating the peri-urban areas for plantation and not for real estate development as has happened in the past.”
Another major impact of rising temperatures in cities is the increased demand for air-conditioners (ACs) and refrigeration which means emission of more greenhouse gases and more heat trapping. To arrest this trend, there are suggestions to rely on clean and renewable energy but progress on this count is slow.
Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmentalist with interest in urban planning has a different view. He believes the demand for energy is increasing not because of the heat (there was similar degree of heat 100 years ago but no electricity), but because of consumer practices. “We like our living rooms with large glass windows. Of course, they’ll require air conditioning during summer and a heater during winter.” Similarly, he says, citizens need electricity for refrigerating food because they like to eat meat and imported products. “Again, before electricity our diets were much different. Our houses are not built to be energy-efficient. This was because electricity was relatively cheap and (until recently) relatively abundant).”
Alam does not think adoption of renewable energy has anything to do with use of ACs. “Renewables should be pursued over fossil fuel-based energy because that’s just common sense.” He says we can design our buildings and spaces so that AC use is minimised. “After all, the British ruled here for 200 years without using ACs.”
Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry, a climate expert and lead author of Pakistan’s first National Climate Change Policy, says rising temperatures are causing frequent and extreme heatwaves in Pakistan, particularly urban areas are experiencing severe impacts. “In summers of 2015, Karachi got affected by an intense heatwave. Around 1000 people died. Reason was the reduction in green areas and haphazard concrete construction.”
Chaudhry believes Pakistan is more vulnerable because emissions are increasing at a faster rate. He says forest cover has increased which is a positive step and will contribute to local and global climate change mitigation efforts. “At the local level, recommended steps are increasing use of renewable energy and conservation of energy, water and natural resources.”
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO, Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), Pakistan is of the view that instead of blaming the developed West for polluting the environment we must do the needful. “The West has polluted the most and now they have cleaned up the most. Pakistan should not live in the history of pollution but move quickly to be part of the global operation. This has more economic growth and job creation opportunities than playing the historical victim card.”
Sheikh points out that minimum temperature in cities are as important as maximum temperatures because they allow people to recoup biologically and freshen up for next day’s work. “But due to urban heat island effect nights are also warm, giving little relief to the citizens except those who can afford ACs. Due to this reason a general fatigue sets and people reach offices half awake and exhausted.” Secondly, he says, if minimum temperatures are higher than usual it takes little time for the cities to get warmer once the sun rises.”
He says long-term measures are needed to improve the situation but what we should immediately concentrate on is to go for climate-smart buildings and urban development so that damage in the case of environmental disasters can be avoided or minimised.