It ain’t easy being green

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  • Planting trees can’t be the end of the Green Growth Agenda

The importance of clean energy, and the necessity of reducing a nation’s impact on the environment, is often lost on the general public. Sure, there are certain things we’re taught from a young age: more trees means more oxygen and less erosion; conserving water reduces waste, etc. And while that’s well and good — that’s where the majority of our environmental education stops. There is seemingly never any thought given to the inclusion of more complex themes in the educational curriculum as our citizens grow older and more capable of grasping concepts such as the impact we as human beings have on the ecosystem, and the very real costs of several of our practices. Case in point: the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Or to be more specific, the energy projects created under it — including but not limited to five coal based power plants that were supposed to become operational this year. While the potential rise in employment opportunities, power generation and economic growth that CPEC promises are real, tangible benefits that even the common citizens understand and have for the most part accepted, there is little to no awareness about the costs among the masses. As a result, any and all dissenting voices are easily muted or labelled troublemakers by authority figures and other stakeholders — much to the detriment of the country.

“Today we’re looking at the worst impact of climate change in the planet’s history” reads like a sensational headline, common enough at a time when even major traditional news sources are not immune to the plague of clickbait. It is true that the statement seems grossly exaggerated and even unfair. After all industrial development, residential expansion, urbanisation and the resulting growth in the demand for energy wasn’t as high in the past. The rate of development and expansion in the IT sector alone is enough to make the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries seem like a mere blip on the planet’s timeline.

Shouldn’t it therefore make sense that the scramble for energy generation exists in a larger capacity than it was, say, in the last century — a mere twenty years ago?

A World Bank report in 2016, over one-third of Pakistani citizens lack access to electricity and extended hours of load-shedding were the norm — even in areas connected to the grid. In addition, energy producers claimed that the use of imported oil in the country’s fuel mix was too costly — resulting in high production and consumption costs.

Therefore, shouldn’t it also make sense that producers of energy would look towards fuel sources that would reduce costs — not only of generation, but also, as a result, of consumption, thus making energy more accessible?

Well, yes. But that’s not what environmentalists are concerned about.

Trump’s reversal of the Obama legislation came at the very real cost of human lives and the neglect of the rights and values of one group of citizens (the indiginous tribes) in comparison with other citizens (white majority areas the project was relocated from due to pollution complaints). And it has very real lessons for the PTI government that took oath on Monday.

Coal is cheap — and Pakistan has reserves of it. But it is not a source of power that is sustainable. Which means that when our sources dry up, we’re going to be back at square one — CPEC or no CPEC. Admittedly, the PML-N government had announced that the whole process would begin with imported coal, eventually transitioning to locally extracted sources. But that’s hardly any more heartening — who’s going to bear the costs of imports, China? CPEC’s financing relies heavily on loans given by the People’s Republic to Pakistan — loans the country is expected to pay back, with interest. The import of coal hardly makes it cost efficient in the long run. And yet, as mentioned before, there has been little to no debate on this at the federal level because the government would not allow dissent to be brought up — let alone addressed.

Coal mining is not without other costs — pollution and the harm to heritage sites being the least of them. Twin mines collapsed in Marwar earlier this year, causing twenty three fatalities according to Al Jazeera. That’s twenty three lives lost.

In Sindh, residents of the Tharparkar desert protested coal mining operations in the area. Not only were the projects causing displacement of entire communities, they complained, but they were also causing significant pollution of and damage to ancestral lands.

In 2016, Native Americans from the Standing Rock tribe began protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which was supposed to run from North Dakota to Southern Illinois. The people cited not only the pollution of water supplies but also the desecration of ancestral lands. The incident gained enough attention for the US Army Corps of Engineers to deny a key permit for the construction of the pipeline under the Obama administration. No one is denying the need for energy, fuel and employment that spurred the project, but the fact that US President Donald Trump reversed the Obama legislation caused outrage. It came at the very real cost of human lives and the neglect of the rights and values of one group of citizens (the indigenous tribes) in comparison with other citizens (white majority areas the project was relocated from due to pollution complaints). The First Nations’ outrage did not make them bad Americans — it was justified — and it has very real lessons for the PTI government that took oath on Monday.

As John Green points out in his video essay “Why some environmentalists hate Captain Planet”, an entire generation has been raised on the notion that any and all efforts to utilise or “exploit” natural resources are, in a word, evil. It paints a portrait that energy producers and governments hate — one that projects a blatant lack of empathy, willful ignorance and an almost inhuman greed. It’s a depiction that’s only magnified by the lack of attention given to both Thar and the Standing Rock Tribe, though it need not always be the case. However, this and similar stigmatisation of energy producers and major stakeholders makes it unnecessarily difficult for activists to engage in some much needed dialogue with these parties — which includes policy makers. It’s a discourse which is necessary — particularly in Pakistan, where personal politics, business interests and policy making are all blatantly interconnected – because it will lead to the understanding that it is not the need, nor the rapidly growing energy consumption that is concerning. What’s concerning, is that in a growing, ever evolving world where the corporate sector insists “change is the only constant”, it is the same industrialists and power players who refuse to change.

As I wrote this article, a new prime minister was about to take an oath to serve this nation. While the Kaptaan has yet to finalise his cabinet members, Malik Amin Aslam is being agreed upon across the board as the favourite for the position of minister for climate change. He is also considered one of the greatest influences on Chapter Six of the PTI’s 2018 Manifesto — which is concerned with what the party calls its “Green Growth Agenda”. It promises the creation of a Green Task Force working under the new PM’s cell to implement, among other things, mandatory environmental education, initiatives towards affordable and sustainable energy, “aggressive” campaigns to reduce environmental pollution, the creation of an annual “Eco-Budget” and the integration of the “Eco Cost” in all economic decisions. Of course these are all still just promises and their quantification, translation into policies and eventual implementation is a tall order — and barely the tip of the iceberg on all that Imran Khan and his government are to accomplish in the next five years. No doubt, Malik Aslam has his work cut out for him. It is the last point in particular that caught my eye. Because while concerns have been raised about Pakistan’s lack of capabilities regarding ash handling and pollution and waste management in the wake of the CPEC power projects — including the Sahiwal power plant — for the PTI to have an impact with its promises, it would mean including the economic decisions regarding CPEC in this new framework (some of which have already been implemented).

Imran Khan sang China’s praises in his victory speech — which raised some liberal eyebrows and more than a few concerned voices — if only on social media. Will the PTI government go toe to toe with the government that’s funding a series of projects that have been universally acknowledged as game-changing? Will China come to the negotiation table and agree to foot the bill for further revamping of an already partially implemented series of high cost projects? Time will tell.

Two things make sense though:

The first, that Pakistan cannot afford to pursue policies that are in direct conflict with its national interests. And yes, the policies that favour the exploitation of fossil fuels are included in such a list. Not only is the process detrimental to the health and wellbeing of our citizens, it is also damaging to the environment, heritage sites of considerable cultural and historical significance, and even, potentially, our foreign relations. After all, Pakistan is reviving its coal industry — at a time when most of the world (including China) is taking steps to clamp down on its own. That alone could see a host of sanctions headed our way.

The second is that attempting to ridicule, ostracise or push aside concerned activists and protestors is not the answer, because their fears are hardly unfounded.

There are significant hurdles of course. Whether the agenda remains a top priority for the Kaptaan’s government remains to be seen, though the fact remains that it must. Thankfully, organisations such as PILDAT and efforts such as the Khan Meter (www.khanmeter.org) among others serve as independent, neutral watch dogs. It’ll take more than individual efforts to keep Pakistan on the right side of history where climate change is concerned though — not unlike the Kaptaan’s “billion tree tsunami”. These are all stepping stones, not even the bare bones of the foundation, and whether or not PTI builds upon them remains to be seen.

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