Tending to his wilting wheat crop after months of drought and smog, Pakistani farmer Aamer Hayat Bhandara said his biggest hope for the general election is that whoever wins makes good on a flurry of campaign promises to tackle climate change. Pakistan goes to polls on February 8.
The two frontrunners – the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – have both proposed similar climate policies in their manifestos, highlighting growing concern about the effects of global warming after devastating 2022 floods.
Changing climate patterns
“The smog and absence of rain for three consecutive months robbed crops of sunlight…and caused rust — or fungal infection — on wheat,” said Mr. Bhandara, 38, a farmer in Punjab province and co-founder of the Agriculture Republic think-tank, which represents small- and medium-scale farmers.
He said changing climate patterns had shortened winters and stretched summers, with heatwaves impacting his rice and corn crops, while untimely rains and hailstorms have battered his wheat harvests. That made the parties’ promises for climate action – from boosting renewable energy to investing in early warning systems for floods and heatwaves – welcome reading for him and other farmers at the sharp end of climate change.
“The pledges are wonderful,” Mr. Bhandara said. “Heightened climate action not only holds the potential to ease economic pressures but also to generate employment opportunities.” He added, however, that “the crux of the challenge is to translate these policies into action”.
Pakistan produces less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but ranks 8th among countries most vulnerable to extreme weather linked to climate change, according to the latest edition of the Global Climate Risk Index.
The floods in 2022 killed more than 1,700 people, displaced 8 million and destroyed about a million homes and livelihoods across the country of 220 million – fuelling calls for the Government to prioritise the fight against climate change.
Politicians promise to fight climate change
Outlining his party’s plans to overhaul Pakistan’s development model to stabilise its troubled economy, PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told Reuters this month his strategy would put “the threat of climate change front and centre”.
He said the PPP also aims to ensure global funds exceeding $10 billion pledged last year to help Pakistan rebound from the floods are used to fight climate change.
Similarly, the PMLN has vowed to use the funds to implement the Resilient Recovery, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction Framework, dubbed 4RF, a recovery strategy to build long-term climate resilience and adaptation developed with international organisations.
The party’s proposals also include strict enforcement of environmental protection laws, upgrading brick kilns to fight air pollution, and planting native tree species to curb the use of fertilisers, reduce soil erosion and save water, among others.
Party president Shehbaz Sharif has described climate change as a “development, economic, human and national security issue”.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), left in disarray by the jailing and election ban on its leader Imran Khan last month, has not released its manifesto yet.
Implementation is key, say activists
Economists warn that a lack of adequate measures to fight the effects of climate change could deal another blow to a cash-strapped economy already grappling with historic inflation and an unstable rupee.
A 2022 World Bank report highlighted Pakistan’s staggering financial requirements to combat climate-induced disasters, estimating a $300 billion gap in available funds.
Without urgent action, climate change could shave off one-fifth of GDP, it said.
But Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, said the frontrunners’ election manifestos neglected the economic effects of climate change. “The transformative effects that [the] climate crisis brings to our economy such as the effects on the market economy of agriculture, coastal resources, energy, forestry, tourism, and water are overlooked,” he said. Authorities often fail to implement their policies, he added.
Despite Government pledges to boost clean energy, Pakistan’s renewable energy growth has lagged — rising from 0% of total power generation capacity in 2010 to 5.7% in 2023, while the global average went from 2% to 12% over the same period.
Part of the challenge stems from the fact that critical sectors such as agriculture, water, transport, energy, urban development and forestry fall under provincial government control.
“Climate governance necessitates a tailored, province-specific approach rather than a federal, one-size-fits-all strategy,” Mr. Alam said by phone from the city of Lahore.
Others have voiced concern that the party manifestos pay scant attention to communities displaced by climate-related disasters or those in climate hotspots including low-lying coastal areas and mountainous regions threatened by glacial melting.
‘We risk losing everything’
But environmental activists and farmers have broadly welcomed the focus on climate issues for the first time in this year’s election campaign.
In a village near Chichawatni in Pakistan’s cotton-growing belt, farmer Jawwad Nawaz, 32, said the PMLN’s manifesto represents “a lifeline for the agricultural community”, adding that he hopes the proposed policies translate into tangible support for farmers.
Lahore-based climate activist Mawra Muzaffar said she had seen progress in Sindh province under the PPP that showed what could be achieved — from growing mangroves to importing electric buses. The PMLN’s vows to boost the use of clean energy in agriculture through solar panels are realistic and feasible, she said. “Moreover, it talks about a 10% reduction in carbon emissions, which if achieved will be very important,” she added.
In his village in Pakpattan district, Bhandara said the success of such policies must go hand-in-hand with climate adaptation measures for farmers.
His think-tank, and Digital Dera, a tech startup, is calling for the establishment of a national fund for research, innovation, resilience, and financial security for farmers. “Farmers need support for adaptation, and the Government must bear the cost of these measures,” he said, calling for urgent action to implement such policies.
“We can’t afford to waste time when it comes to climate change…Otherwise, we risk losing everything – including our food security and livelihoods,” he said, before hurrying off to meet an election candidate visiting his village.