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Pakistan floods: Tackling the climate carnage

From the vast mountain ranges of the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush in the north, along the banks of the Indus River and its tributaries to the coastal plains of the Arabian Sea in the south, Pakistan is a stunningly beautiful and geologically diverse country. It is this diversity that underpins the natural balance of glacial melts and monsoon rains that allows Pakistan to feed its people and generate electricity for a population of around 230 million.

But this summer the environmental balance was badly shaken. A combination of rapid glacial melting due to rising temperatures, cloud bursts that shed water 7-8 times the annual average and an over engineered water management system that alters the natural flow of water, resulted in floods never seen before with a devastating outcome - a third of Pakistan underwater, 33 million people affected, 8 million displaced, 1,700 deaths and an economic loss of $30 billion and rising. This devastation is the result of human induced climate change. ’The dystopia has already come to our doorstep’ said Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Sherry Rehman at the UN’s climate conference COP27 in Egypt.

At the heart of the climate negotiations is the dilemma of how to continue economic growth while protecting our planet. Emerging economies, like Pakistan, want to grow without restrictions to offer the same quality of life to their populations as their industrialised counterparts do. But the system of industrialised growth that led to these living standards is unsustainable.

The cries for climate justice resound in Pakistan and around the world. Underpinning climate justice is the polluter pays principle – an obligation by the industrialised nations to pay for the ‘loss and damage’ they have caused to our planet through emissions of greenhouse gases which cause climate change, and to transfer funds to emerging economies so the same pathways are not taken. These funds are critical to offer immediate relief to the flood impacted vulnerable populations in Pakistan but also to help the country adapt to a more vicious and unpredictable climate future. My research on climate finance shows that the funding remains acutely inadequate. Even if the commitments to the intensely negotiated $100 billion a year were being met (which they are not) they are nowhere near enough for the entire emerging economies when you consider Pakistan alone needs $30 billion.

Even where funding has made its way processes are painfully slow and dominated by the activities of multi-national institutions and other global entities, thus creating a huge capability void in those countries to develop robust projects locally important to them. The funding is also skewed towards easy wins and does not take into account the broader systems challenge. For instance, my research on foods systems shows  that interventions and financing mechanisms have historically focused narrowly on production or specific sectors within food and related systems, with a few notable exceptions, rather than developing an holistic pan food systems approach. Again the floods in Pakistan show that such short-term approaches risk being futile, as unless we address the systemic challenges in the food systems the next floods will simply erode these efforts.

So how do we create a just climate and financially secure future for the growing populations in the emerging economies? Alongside the continued pressure for climate justice there is also an opportunity for us to unleash collective action.

There are five interconnecting strands to this collective action:


Policy to regulate polluters

We need governments and policymakers to regulate the polluters so that we put a stop to polluters, or at least make them pay. Climate change policies need to be part of every government department, and ministries need to co-ordinate their activities so action is systemic and not piecemeal. And the rules and regulations need to be enforced with clear mandatory disclosures on climate impact and climate risk. My colleagues Richard Barker and Amir Amel-Zadeh have done much work in this field to stop environmental, social and governance (ESG) accounting from being the Wild West for reporting.  

Collaboration to bridge the capability gaps

The biggest challenge in a country like Pakistan is a capability gap. So how can we train the next leaders in sustainability? How can we ensure their ideas and innovations can come to life? Collaboration has a key role to play.

This summer as the torrential monsoon rains fell I had the opportunity to lead the Oxford Pakistan Climate Workshop connecting researchers across Pakistan and Oxford; helping them to develop collaborative research networks within Pakistan; supporting them to build the right capabilities in research and teaching; creating bridges to link the data rich climate research they have with their global peers. Along similar lines in 2019 I led a project for the World Bank mapping Climate Smart Agriculture for Pakistan and the Punjab


Funding to catalyse investment

To put it simply - don’t give someone a fish, teach them how to fish. In the current climate crisis, we need to go further and make our rivers sustainable for the fish to survive. This links back to my point above about ensuring that investment is not captured by global entities. We need to unlock capital and catalyse investment for the emerging world with that funding, while building a fairer and equitable financial system for all. And as my colleague Marya Besharov argues in her Decisive Decade research funders play an important role in climate action initiatives and are well positioned to foster a virtuous circle of catalytic collaboration.   

Innovation to drive industry change

A recent report by the global consulting firm McKinsey’s said $275 trillion would be needed over the next three decades for a net-zero transition. Or put it another way there is a $275 trillion opportunity in the energy transition and land transformation. The jobs of the future are in climate and the private sector has to start to innovate to unlock this capital; corporations need to move away from old polluting industries to new net-zero industries. As climate change creates more uncertainty about the future of our planet today’s youth will feel its impact the most in the decades to come. But young people are also change agents, innovators and entrepreneurs, and in Pakistan 64% of the population is under the age of 30. The next unicorns will be born out of climate technology and Pakistan can lead the way in sectors such as zero-emission and resilient food, textiles and health, and in global emissions accounting and reporting with its mature professional services sector.  

Education to develop climate talent

We need to develop, nurture and stimulate climate leaders of tomorrow. As a business school we want our students to leave with the knowledge and tools to play their part in all of the strands above. While flood management may not be our core focus sustainability it is woven throughout the curriculum and it is why we run our GOTO (Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford) module for our MBA and Executive MBA students. GOTO is an action-oriented problem solving community which unpacks complex systemic issues to understand the root causes - for example in terms of the Pakistan floods it involves looking at the drivers such as poverty, resilience, agricultural systems and man-made infrastructure - and to develop robust solutions.

It is now three months since the Pakistan floods but the waters have not receded and will not for months to come. Schools, hospitals, offices, homes, roads, bridges and farms have been washed away or damaged. 9 million people have been pushed below the poverty line and public health and education services are in crisis.  

The cries for climate justice will continue and even if they fall on deaf ears in some places, they will be heard here at Saïd Business School. The University of Oxford has incredible convening power bringing together academics across a range of fields with partners across the political, social and business spectrum. Initiatives such as the Oxford Climate Tech Initiative, which I co-lead, promises the potential to close the knowledge and resource gaps to accelerate the transition towards net-zero, and build resilience so when the waters finally recede in Pakistan the ‘climate carnage’ of 2022 hopefully will not be repeated.