‘Pakistan doesn’t believe in net-zero’: An interview with Imran Khan’s top

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In the opening days of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, headlines focused on a slew of long-term commitments, with more than 100 countries pledging both to cut methane emissions by 30% and to end deforestation by 2030.

But just as important for the world’s long-term climate trajectory are the development decisions made this decade by countries that are not yet major emitters. While they are the least responsible for climate change, developing countries must chart a new course, away from the carbon-intensive development of countries like the United States and China, if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to stay in sight.

Unlike India and Nepal, Pakistan has not announced a net-zero year. Pakistan’s Nationally Determined Contribution is ambitious in the short term, committing to cut 50% of projected emissions and achieve 60% renewable energy by 2030. However, many questions remain about its feasibility and implementation.

In Glasgow, The Third Pole sat down with Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on climate change, to hear his views on net-zero targets and the road ahead for Pakistan as it seeks to deliver on its climate commitments.

Excerpts from the interview:

Pakistan’s de facto climate change minister Malik Amin Aslam at the Pakistan pavilion at COP26. Credit: The Third Pole.

Given the message it could send to the investment community, and the potential for raising investment for green growth, why has Pakistan decided not to declare a net-zero year for this Conference of the Parties?
In Pakistan, we do not believe in the net-zero concept at the moment. We believe in the concept of a decisive decade in the next 10 years. If the world does not change in the next 10 years, then we will be too late for any net zeros in 2050, 2060 or 2070. I believe that net zero if it translates into concrete action in the next decade is good, but most of these announcements are just announcements.

Pakistan has done something different, a very clear directional shift [is] happening in the next 10 years – going 60% zero-carbon [in energy production] by 2030, clean transport, going 30% electric by 2030 and trusting and investing in nature. We have the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, which is already ongoing, 15 new national parks being declared in the last year alone amd Recharge Pakistan, using floodwaters for restoring our wetlands and managing and adapting to climate change. We want to reinvigorate the momentum for these initiatives in the coming decade. The last decade has been a decade of disappointment on climate change, and the next decade has to be the decade of action. If that does not happen, net zero does not matter.

Pakistan’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution is ambitious, with a total target of a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 (part of that being conditional on international financing), compared to projected emissions between 2015 and 2030. What time frame are you looking at to peak emissions?
We have done our arithmetic on the emissions and believe that with the sequestration projects that we are doing, Pakistan could well be on its way to levelling all its emissions. Our Nationally Determined Contribution shows that we have gone 9% below our business-as-usual trajectory in 2020, and we can go 50% below by 2030. It is a very clear directional target, but we have made it conditional on getting $100 billion of finance which can allow us to make a clean and just energy transition.

At the UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders discussed how to tackle climate change on a global scale. Photo credit: Yves Herman/ Reuters

We are not talking about climate change in a silo, we are shifting the direction of our mainstream development towards being climate friendly. That is what really needs to happen all across the world. Pakistan is still responsible for less than 1% of global emissions – even if we closed down everything in Pakistan, it would not matter for the world. What does matter is that a country like Pakistan is paving the way towards climate-friendly development, based on nature and based on clean energy.

A note in the updated Nationally Determined Contribution suggests Pakistan will still increase the role of domestic coal in the energy mix to 15% by 2030. What is the plan in terms of phasing out local coal?
The local coal aspect is still there, but we have committed to no new imported coal projects. We have followed this up with clear action by shelving two projects of 2,400 megawatts, which were already signed off. We have shifted to 3,700 megawatts of hydropower. On local coal, we are looking for coal gasification and coal liquefaction technologies that are much less polluting and more efficient, but this requires access to the best available technology and climate finance.

We have noted that coal gasification can be more polluting than traditional coal.
We are looking for the best available technology which would be less polluting. We have worked on some options which have been used in South Africa, but we are still searching for the best available technology. That is what these forums should be able to provide.

Many of the actions outlined in the Nationally Determined Contribution are long-term projects, such as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme. For that mitigation impact to be delivered, it depends on political continuity. As we have seen from the US example, a change of administration can have immense impacts on climate pledges. What happens to Pakistan’s commitments if there is a change of government?
We are trying to link up our financing streams with clear performance indicators on nature. We have floated our first green bond which is $500 million for renewable energy.

We have done the national capital evaluation for our blue bonds, with mangroves, and we are also looking at nature performance bonds that link up debt relaxation or reduction with nature performance. If that happens, no matter who comes into power, those agreements will be locked in with nature performance and climate action. I think that’s the solution to this problem of keeping on track.

How are you measuring the current and future carbon sequestration impact of the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme?
If we can do the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme by 2040 and keep them [the trees] standing, we would be sequestering the same amount of carbon as we are emitting today, about 500 million tonnes. That is based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimations which have been done by the Climate Change Impact Strategy Centre, and a study that we have sent in to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We have already [reached] 1.5 billion [trees]. We hope to reach 3.2 billion by 2023, and then in the next five years, by 2028, we want to reach 10 billion trees.

Pakistan has a high deforestation rate. What is the government doing to preserve the existing forests, given their value for biodiversity?
This Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme is not about planting new forests. Of it, 70% is about protecting existing natural forests, which is called assisted natural regeneration.

A coal mine outside Quetta, in Pakistan. Photo credit: Naseer Ahmed/ Reuters

How will these areas be protected in practice?
A problem in Pakistan has been a lot of protected areas which were just paper parks. We have started a protected area initiative, and are going to be training a new national park service, with 5,000 green jobs.

We have secured 120 billion in funding for that through the World Bank. This is going to be community-based, with young people and women included, who will be our new park rangers for these expanded national parks. They will be integrating into community-managed national park management plans. We will be starting this next month, and by the middle of next year we hope to target filling these jobs.

The updated Nationally Determined Contribution pledges that by 2030, 60% of the…

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