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With Glaciers Melting And Temps Soaring, Pakistan Pursues Big Action On Climate Change

Laiba Atika (right), walks with her sister Maira Atika to check on the trees they had planted earlier in the season in the nearby park where they live in Mardan, Pakistan.
Laiba Atika (right), walks with her sister Maira Atika to check on the trees they had planted earlier in the season in the nearby park where they live in Mardan, Pakistan.

On her first foray into tree planting, Laiba Atiq forgot a key item — a shovel, which her mom later fetched.

But the 17-year-old is clear about why she is leading volunteers in the northern Pakistani city of Mardan to plant dozens of pine trees in a scrubby park.

"It's our duty as citizens," she says in formal English, "to implement actions that can make planet a better place to live in."

Atiq's tree-planting drive is being replicated all over Pakistan, where the government aims to plant 10 billion trees over five years with the help of local communities. The reforestation initiative is central to a wide-ranging plan the Pakistani government recently adopted to change practices and cut emissions that drive climate change.

Like most developing nations, Pakistan is not a big emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But developing countries suffer harm disproportionate to their historically low emissions. Climate-fueled extreme weather events, from floods to droughts, could displace or kill tens of thousands of people, straining government resources and threatening political stability.

That urgency has prompted some nations, such as Pakistan, to craft ambitious plans to reduce emissions, even as the world's second-largest emitter, the United States, shrugs off serious climate action.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan "knows the implications of climate change and is willing to take the lead in putting Pakistan on a green trajectory," says Malik Amin Aslam, a senior climate change adviser to Khan and the leading proponent of the new policies.

Shahroom Badshah (right) and and Bakhtiar Ali, show a plantation under the government's ambitious 10-billion tree initiative along the Col Sher interchange on the highway in Mardan.
/ Saiyna Bashir for NPR
Shahroom Badshah (right) and Bakhtiar Ali show a plantation under the government's ambitious 10 billion tree initiative along an interchange on a highway in Mardan.

Alongside tree planting, the government announced a new electric vehicle policy this summer and plans to get two-thirds of its electricity from wind, solar and hydropower by 2030. "That is a genuine step up in ambition for renewable energy," says Simon Nicholas, an energy finance analyst who follows Pakistan at the U.S.-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

But the problems that have long hobbled Pakistan threaten its new climate goals, too, environmental activists say. Plans are undermined by corruption and lax implementation, according to Afia Salam, an activist in Karachi. Environmentalists point to other ambitious policies the government announced since it took power, such as a ban on plastic bags in Islamabad, which has gone widely ignored.

Khan's own broad-tent party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, includes powerful business interests that have carved out loopholes for themselves from the climate policies.

"What Pakistan has done, despite resource constraint, is aspirational for many countries," Salam says. But she adds, "There's so many conflicting interests within the party itself."

Workers tend to plants on the outskirts of Peshawar in an initiative to plant 10-billion trees to deal with climate change in Azakhel Mattani, Pakistan.
/ Saiyna Bashir
Workers tend to plants on the outskirts of Peshawar in an initiative to plant trees to deal with climate change.

The world's fifth most populous country, Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable to global warming. Already, summer temperatures in its southern cities often surpass 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Rainfall has grown more erratic, and in August, unprecedented monsoon rains drowned parts of Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, turning roads into rivers and killing dozens of people across the country.

Northern glaciers nestled in mountains are the country's main water source, and they are melting faster than ever. Highland communities now face occasional water shortages and flash flooding that sweeps away their lands. If the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions continues on its present trajectory, the water supply for Pakistan's 220 million people will be imperiled within 50 years, scientists say.

"This is, in a nutshell, is sort of the unfairness, the inequitability of climate change, magnified in a place like Pakistan," says Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States.

A view of a highway in Islamabad, Pakistan. The government announced a new electric vehicle policy this summer, and plans to get two-thirds of its electricity from wind, solar and hydropower by 2030.
/ Saiyna Bashir
A view of a highway in Islamabad. The Pakistani government announced a new electric vehicle policy this summer and plans to get two-thirds of its electricity from wind, solar and hydropower by 2030.

Like large Western democracies and other big greenhouse gas polluters, Pakistan must move on multiple fronts at the same time to rein in emissions. But in Pakistan, the frailties of the state are graver, complicating efforts to make big, swift changes.

Take the mass tree-planting project. Satellite data suggest it is expanding tree and mangrove cover, which barely covers 2% of Pakistan, according to Salam. Auditing of the project hasn't begun yet. But Hammad Gilani, a forestry data scientist at Islamabad's Institute of Space Technology, says: "If this is going to be sustained, then definitely, we will get better tree cover."

But even as planting continues, loggers cut down mature trees. "We are not saving our trees, our existing ones," Gilani says. "Anybody can go and cut a tree."

On the outskirts of Peshawar, Adalat Khan holds a tree sapling that's part of an initiative to plant 10 billion trees to deal with climate change threats.
/ Saiyna Bashir
On the outskirts of Peshawar, Adalat Khan holds a tree sapling that's part of the initiative to plant 10 billion trees to deal with climate change threats.

Deforestation is a problem across Pakistan: The poorest fell trees to burn for cooking and to stay warm. Farmers quietly widen their lands by nibbling at the trees at their perimeters. Loggers sell wood to the large furniture and construction industries.

Mohammad Faseeh, a 22-year-old student planting trees in Mardan, says he's unsure the baby pines, planted in a neglected park in an upscale suburb, will survive what he calls "the timber mafia."

The trees will take years to grow, he says, "but it will take a few seconds to chop them down."

It's the same in remote districts such as Batakundi, a six-hour drive north of Mardan toward the Himalayas. Potato farmer Shan Mukhtiyar Mughal gestures to the denuded hills behind him.

Bare hills in the northern area of Batakundi. Residents said forests once blanketed this area, but widespread logging denuded the hills.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
Bare hills in the northern area of Batakundi. Residents said forests once blanketed this area, but widespread logging denuded the hills.

There are laws banning tree felling, but residents say they are rarely enforced, often due to widespread corruption. "The forest is almost finished," Mughal says. "They are cutting the trees, not planting them."

Other policies hold loopholes that undercut how substantially Pakistan might curb carbon dioxide pollution. The government's new electric vehicle policy aims to lessen Pakistan's terrible air pollution, and it reduces taxes on imported parts to incentivize sales. It covers motorbikes, rickshaws, buses and trucks, vehicles that dominate the road in Pakistan.

But cars are exempt – a move that critics argue could make the electric vehicle policy almost useless, or "like a wedding without the groom," says Shaukat Qureshi, general secretary of Pakistan Electric Vehicles and Parts Manufacturers and Traders Association.

An electric car charging station installed at a local gas station in Islamabad. The government's new electric vehicle policy aims to lessen Pakistan's terrible air pollution, and it reduces taxes on imported parts to incentivize sales. It covers motorbikes, rickshaws, buses and trucks, vehicles which dominate the road in Pakistan, but cars are exempt.
/ Saiyna Bashir for NPR
An electric car charging station installed at a gas station in Islamabad. The government's electric vehicle policy aims to lessen Pakistan's air pollution, and it reduces taxes on imported parts to incentivize sales. It covers motorbikes, rickshaws, buses and trucks, vehicles that dominate the road in Pakistan. But cars are exempt.

The renewable energy policy, announced in August, calls for a third of Pakistan's power to come from wind and solar power within a decade, up from around 2% now.

Another third of power is meant to come from hydroelectric dams. Right now, about a third of Pakistan's power already comes from hydro dams. But to meet expected demand within the decade, another 10 are in the works, according to local media.

But the policy aimed at cutting Pakistan's greenhouse gas emissions also allows for a third of the power to come from coal — more than double what the country uses now. At least six coal power projects, funded by China, are in the pipeline. Most of them would be in the southern Thar Desert, where Pakistan has vast reserves of low-quality coal. Pakistan plans to build another eight large coal projects with China's help, also in the Thar Desert, as far into the future as 2040.

Dump trucks drive at the open-pit coal mining site in Islamkot, in the Thar desert in Pakistan in 2017.
Akhtar Soomro / Reuters
Dump trucks drive at an open-pit coal mining site in Islamkot in the Thar Desert in 2017.

Coal is meant to ensure a reliable baseload of power to Pakistan's grid, says Shah Jahan Mirza, managing director of the private power and infrastructure board at the Ministry of Energy. Reliability is key for Pakistan, Mirza says. Power cuts of 20 hours a day in parts of the country triggered deadly riots until 2017 when China completed the first of a series of coal power plants.

Those plants now provide around 12% of Pakistan's energy, and some 4% comes from nuclear power. But the majority of the country's power is still generated from hydroelectric dams. Many parts of Pakistan still have hours-long power cuts, especially remote areas.

Some coal plants might not get built, Mirza says. The government's aim of getting to a third of power from wind and solar means those projects would likely be approved as a priority, particularly as the storage batteries that make renewable power more reliable grow cheaper.

Tarbela hydroelectric dam on the Indus River. Right now, about a third of Pakistan's power already comes from hydro dams, but to meet expected demand within the decade, another ten more are in the works.
/ Saiyna Bashir for NPR
Tarbela Dam on the Indus River. Right now, about a third of Pakistan's power already comes from hydro dams, but to meet expected demand within the decade, another 10 more reportedly are in the works.

"There's sort of mixed signals coming out of Pakistan," says Nicholas, the energy expert. "The problem is, if they keep building coal plants – those plants are supposed to run for 40 years. So they are, to a great extent, potentially locking out further renewable energy development if they build both at the same time."

Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the technology exists now for Pakistan to leapfrog coal and build more renewables. But it would need wealthy Western countries to "provide the finances that countries like Pakistan need to make this transition happen more quickly," she says. Given that most of the carbon dioxide heating the planet was generated by industrialized nations, "it is not fair for Pakistan to take on the cost of doing this on its own."

A hydropower dam under construction in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Chinese government is financing the dam and it is being supervised by Chinese workers.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
A hydropower dam under construction in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Chinese government is financing the dam, and Chinese workers are supervising it.

Even without outside help, the coal-fired plants in the pipeline may be Pakistan's last, says Mirza, the managing director of a board at the Ministry of Energy that authorizes power projects. He notes that Pakistan has already mothballed three large projects that would have built eight coal-fired power plants through Chinese investment.

Ultimately, Pakistan's climate policies will endure if ordinary people embrace them, environmentalists say.

Back in the park in Mardan, Atiq, the teenage volunteer, says she's trying to inspire other Pakistanis. A cluster of kids sits around a rusty swing, gawping. It's rare to see a woman in public in this deeply conservative area.

But a little girl runs up to the volunteers and grabs a baby pine. She wants to plant it herself.

Outside the park, an open-backed jeep filled with plundered logs trundles down the highway.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Though it's rare to see a woman in public in this deeply conservative area, Laiba Atika says she's trying to inspire other Pakistanis.
/ Saiyna Bashir for NPR
Though it's rare to see a woman in public in this deeply conservative area, Atiq says she's trying to inspire other Pakistanis.

Corrected: September 30, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Laiba Atiq and her sister Maira Atiq as Atika.