An unintended consequence of the coronavirus lockdown has been the significant improvement in the Air Quality Index (AQI) of major urban centres across Pakistan. Other countries have experienced similar effects. While the development is temporary, likely to be reversed once economic activity is restored to pre-pandemic levels, it does point clearly towards the impact of unsustainable economic practices and the larger issue of climate change. A clear blue sky, breathable air and good health ought not to be viewed as luxuries easily sacrificed at the altar of so-called progress.

As per the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the 5th most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. It has experienced 152 extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018, resulting in the loss of 9,989 lives and approximately USD3.8 billion.

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement on June 1, 2017 has dealt a severe blow to the global effort, leaving it leaderless and short of resources. Regardless, Pakistan cannot afford to look outward for leadership on an issue that poses an existential threat to the country and beyond. There are tangible actions that can be undertaken to mitigate the crisis. Threats include siltation of major dams, massive deforestation, increased saline water and stress of water-sharing, extreme weather patterns, reliance on dirty coal power as well as poor waste management and more.

To address the wide range of issues, it is necessary to employ a holistic policy framework that is inclusive and sufficiently agile to implement changes across the board. This may involve efficient resource management, reforestation, regulations on industry, investment in clean energy, efficient agricultural practices and others. A transition towards green technology and sustainable development is a massive undertaking made all the more challenging for a cash-strapped economy such as Pakistan. However, the cost of inaction would be much higher than anything else. There is simply no more time for free market fundamentalism, climate change scepticism or half-measures favoured by special interests.