Lajbouk area in Lower Dir district, KPK, Pakistan. Photo: Wikipedia

Today we live in what scientists have termed the “Anthropocene” age, a geological period wherein collective human activities have altered the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and nutrient cycle.

With the dawn of the Anthropocene age, it’s not only the survival of the fittest but of the wisest given the nature of challenges unleashed by climate change. The heap of troubles lying before developing countries seems unsurmountable.

In Pakistan’s case, it remains prone to challenges that have thwarted its efforts to create a climate-friendly environment. In 2018, Pakistan was ranked on the Global Climate Risk Index as the fifth most vulnerable country to long-term climate-change effects. Pakistan suffered a significant loss to climate change from 1998 to 2018 – 9,986 people lost their lives while the economic loss was US$3.8 billion.

Of the multiple climate-related challenges, rapid deforestation is one the gravest issues faced by the country today. Pakistan loses 27,000 hectares of natural forest area annually. At the time of independence, Pakistan’s total forest cover was 33%. By 2015 it had dropped to 5%. Moreover, in 2010, tree cover in Pakistan was 648,000 hectares, or just 0.74% of total land area.

In 2020, Pakistan lost 69.2 hectares of tree cover, equal to 19.6 kilotons of carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Among the daunting factors that cause deforestation, dependency on firewood, urbanization, and commodity-driven demands are the leading factors. A big chunk of the population (68%) depends on firewood. From 2001 to 2019, urbanization and commodity-driven deforestation accounted for 15% of tree-cover loss.

There is ample evidence that deforestation is interlaced with climate change. Deforestation enhances release of CO2 into the atmosphere. This happens when carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees are cut down. Apart from this, during heavy rainfalls, the absence of trees strengthens the risk of massive landslides.

Studies show that the the loss of forests has been responsible for up to 40% of the global climate warming since 1850. According to one study, deforestation will contribute 1.5 degrees Celsius to global warming by 2100 even if the world shuns dependency on fossil fuels. Yet another study reveals that deforestation has a strong linkage with an increase in human diseases.

Measures taken to stop deforestation in Pakistan

In 2019, in Farooq vs Federation of Pakistan, the Lahore High Court observed that Pakistan had the highest deforestation rate in the world. The petitioner had sought clarification from the government about implementation of laws enacted to control deforestation and achieve 25% land cover with forests.

In 2012, Pakistan achieved a milestone by adopting a comprehensive National Climate Change Policy. The government expressed its resolve to take consolidated steps to reverse deforestation on a war-footing basis. Yet the policy lacked the political will to implement it.

In addition to the National Climate Change Policy, Pakistan, during the Paris Agreement of 2015, joined the ranks of countries that resolved to take measures to mitigate CO2 emissions in order to keep the temperature rise beyond pre-industrial levels below 2.5 degrees Celsius.

Pakistan submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). According to the data shared in the INDC, emissions of greenhouse gases have increased in the country consistently, with a rapid increase in GHG since 1994.

Although Pakistan’s contribution to global GHG emissions is merely 0.8% of the total, it remains high and costly at home given the leading factors (agriculture and industrial growth), that contribute to GHG, accounting for more than 90%.

Subsequently, Pakistan’s Climate Change Act (2017) was warmly welcomed by many policymakers. It was perceived to be more comprehensive in terms of its approach to mitigating climatic effects. The law helped establish the Climate Change Council, the Climate Change Authority, and the Climate Change Fund. More important, experts believe that the act will help fulfill the commitments put forward in the INDC.

The way forward

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif initiated the Green Pakistan Program during his term in office. Worth 3.7 billion rupees (about $24 million), the program aimed at planting 100 million trees to sustain and conserve ecosystem through afforestation.

On a similar scale, the government adopted a National Forest Policy in 2015, which proved to be efficacious. Replicating the Green Pakistan Program, the government announced a “Billion Tree Tsunami” after assuming office, which was a much-needed initiative.

Under the program, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province initiated a massive tree-planting drive, planting around 750 million trees by 2018. This led to some gains. For instance, besides increasing tree cover, the KPK provincial government was able create 50,000 jobs.

Nevertheless, achieving sustained biodiversity, reducing CO2 emissions while reducing agricultural and industrial dependency, and initiating and maintaining afforestation, is a hard target for Pakistan.

A recent study suggests that if the global temperature rises by 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels, people in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh will experience 774 million exposures to deleterious heat stress events by 2050.

According to the study, even if collective efforts worldwide keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees by 2050, still people will experience 423 million exposures to deadly heat-stress events in those three countries.

Deforestation is a double-edged sword. It’s one of the factors that have landed human beings in the Anthropocene Epoch. For Pakistan, its geographical location poses many challenges. A “Billion Tree Tsunami” might be workable in few provinces. But Balochistan and Sindh are arid regions, the most water-stressed provinces. Given this, afforestation will be a daunting process in these provinces.

Initiating massive afforestation and controlling deforestation to confront rampant climate-change effects in future have put Pakistan’s climate-related policies to the test. Nevertheless, a community-based awareness approach is a feasible option. Yet it is missing from Pakistan’s afforestation initiatives.

Ayaz Khan

Ayaz Khan is a journalist and researcher from Pakistan. He covers climate change across the region and Pakistan. He tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno