Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. Global climate change has already resulted in a wide range of impacts across every region of the country and many sectors of the economy that are expected to grow in the coming decades. Climate change refers to a change in average weather conditions, or in the time variation of weather in the context of longer-term average conditions. It has been proven that climate change is related to some major forms of environmental pollution (e.g., air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, noise pollution, radioactive contamination, light pollution, thermal pollution, etc.).
Environment pollution is the introduction of pollutants into the natural environment and causes adverse effects. Air pollution and climate change are very closely related. The main sources of global warming are the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. They are not only key drivers of climate change but are also major sources of air pollutants. There are many reasons why it has become an international concern:
- Persistent and emerging pollutants to a certain extent cause climate change
- Variations in normal weather patterns have unfavorable effects on the physical and biological entities of the environment.
Human and ecological systems rely on soil for the provision of water and nutrients for plant growth, the regulation of the water cycle, and the storage of carbon. The pollution of soil affects its capacity for carbon absorption and causes climate change through changing temperatures, precipitation patterns, etc. Therefore, environmental pollution and climate change influence each other through complex interactions on Earth. Using an array of satellite observations, researchers have found that the climatic influence of global air pollution has dropped by up to 30% from 2000 levels. The cleaner air has effectively boosted the total warming from carbon dioxide emitted over the same time by anywhere from 15% to 50%.
The Faustian bargain
A retired NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, who first called attention to the “Faustian bargain” of fossil fuel pollution in 1990, has said “I believe their conclusions are correct. It’s impressive scientific detective work because no satellite could directly measure global aerosols over this whole period. “It’s like deducing the properties of unobserved dark matter by looking at its gravitational effects.” Dr. Hansen expects a flurry of follow-up work, as researchers seek to quantify the boost to warming.
Some aerosols, such as black carbon, or soot, absorb heat. But reflective sulfate and nitrate particles have a cooling effect. For many years, they formed from polluting gases escaping from car tailpipes, ship flues, and power plant smokestacks.
The new study, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in April grew directly out of last year’s UN climate assessment. It included studies showing aerosol declines in North America and Europe but no clear global trends. Quaas and his co-authors thought two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, operating since 1999 and 2002, might be able to help.
The satellites tally Earth’s incoming and outgoing radiation, which has enabled several research groups, including Quaas and his colleagues, to track the increase in infrared heat trapped by greenhouse gases. But one instrument on Aqua and Terra has also shown a decline in reflected light. Models suggested a decrease in aerosols is partly responsible, says Prof. Venkatachalam Ramaswamy, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, says. “It’s very hard to find alternate reasons for this”. Whatever the exact contribution, it is sure to grow as air quality continues to improve around the world. The answer isn’t to keep polluting, says Jan Cermak, a remote-sensing scientist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, “Air pollution kills people. We need clean air. There is no question about that. Instead, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases need to be redoubled”.
The Earth has warmed by some 1.2°C since preindustrial times, Hansen thinks there’s little hope of cutting emissions fast enough to meet the 1.5°C targets he and other scientists have called for. And so the solution, he says, could come back to aerosols, this time ones spread deliberately through solar geoengineering; which is a controversial idea of lofting sulfate particles into the stratosphere and creating a global, reflective haze. It will be necessary to take temporary corrective measures, including temporary purposeful use of aerosols to avoid catastrophic implications.”
The penalty we have to pay
The annual WMO Air Quality and Climate Bulletin warned that the interaction between pollution and climate change would impose a “climate penalty” for hundreds of millions of people. In addition to reporting on the state of air quality and its close interlinkages with climate change, the Bulletin explores a range of possible air quality outcomes under high and low greenhouse gas emission scenarios. The Year 2022 heat waves in Europe and China, describe stable high atmospheric conditions, sunlight and low wind speeds as being “conducive to high pollution levels”. This is a foretaste of the future because we expect a further increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves, which could lead to even worse air quality, a phenomenon known as the ‘climate penalty’”. It refers specifically to the increase in climate change as it impacts the air people breathe.
Asia is the region with the strongest projected climate penalty. It is the home to roughly one-quarter of the world’s population. Climate change could exacerbate ozone pollution, which would lead to detrimental health impacts for hundreds of millions of people. Because air quality and climate are interconnected, changes in one inevitably cause changes in the other.
The Bulletin explains that the combustion of fossils also emits nitrogen oxide, which can react with sunlight to form ozone and nitrate aerosols.
In turn, these air pollutants can negatively affect ecosystem health, including clean water, biodiversity, and carbon storage.
Climate change affects human health and well-being through more extreme weather events and wildfires, decreased air quality, and diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water. Climate disruptions to agriculture have been increasing and are projected to become more severe over this century, a trend that would diminish the security of the world’s food supply. Surface and groundwater supplies in some regions are already stressed, and water quality is diminishing in many areas, in part due to increasing sediment and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours.
In some regions, prolonged periods of high temperatures associated with droughts contribute to conditions that lead to larger wildfires and longer fire seasons. For coastal communities, sea level rise, combined with coastal storms, has increased the risk of erosion, storm surge damage, and flooding. Extreme heat, sea level rise, and heavy downpours are affecting infrastructures like roads, rail lines, airports, port facilities, energy infrastructure, and military bases.
Impact on Eco System
The capacity of ecosystems like forests, barrier beaches, and wetlands to buffer the impacts of extreme events like fires, floods, and severe storms is being overwhelmed. The rising temperature and changing chemistry of ocean water are combined with other stresses, such as overfishing and pollution, to alter marine-based food production and harm fishing communities.
Some climate changes currently have beneficial effects on specific sectors or regions. For example, current benefits of warming include longer growing seasons for agriculture and longer ice-free seasons for shipping on the Great Lakes. At the same time, however, longer growing seasons, along with higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, can increase pollen production, intensifying and lengthening the allergy season. Longer ice-free periods on the Great Lakes can result in more lake-effect snowfalls. Today, these and other aspects of climate change are having increasingly complex and important impacts on the world economy and quality of life.
Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented increases in temperature at Earth’s surface, as well as in the atmosphere and oceans. Many other aspects of the global climate are changing as well. High-temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing, glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and flooding is becoming more frequent along the coastlines. Growing seasons are longer, and large wildfires occur more frequently. Many species are moving to new locations, and changes in the seasonal timing of important biological events are occurring in response to climate change. These trends are all consistent with a warming world and are expected to continue.
Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, and land-use change, are primarily responsible for the climate changes observed in the industrial era, especially over the last six decades. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming, has increased by about 40% over the industrial era. This change has intensified the natural greenhouse effect, driving an increase in global surface temperatures and other widespread changes in Earth’s climate that are unprecedented in the history of modern civilization.
The Greenhouse Effect
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities will continue to affect Earth’s climate for decades and even centuries. Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate far greater than it is removed by natural processes, creating a long-lived reservoir of the gas in the atmosphere and oceans that is driving the climate to a warmer and warmer state.
Beyond the next few decades, how much the climate changes will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere; how much of those greenhouse gases are absorbed by the ocean, the biosphere, and other sinks; and how sensitive Earth’s climate is to those emissions.
The impacts of global climate change are already being felt and are projected to intensify in the future, especially without further action to reduce climate-related risks. As the impacts of climate change grow, Americans face decisions about how to respond.
- Actions to prepare for and adjust to changing climate conditions thereby reducing negative impacts or taking advantage of new opportunities are known as adaptation.
- The other major category of response options is known as mitigation. It involves efforts to reduce the amount and speed of future climate change by limiting emissions or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Adaptation and mitigation actions are linked in multiple ways and can be considered complementary strategies—mitigation efforts can reduce future risks, while adaptation can minimize the consequences of changes that are already happening as a result of past and present emissions.
Climate change mitigation actions can help to reduce air pollution, and clean air measures can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, leading to reductions in global warming. In addition, global warming is having a measurable effect on water resources, altering the amount, distribution, timing, and quality of water. Flooding and runoff can contaminate water and cause water pollution. Drought can disrupt water, food, and human health. The pollution of water bodies can cause harm to the atmosphere and hinder the growth of plants and algae. Carbon absorption and in turn climate are impacted by water pollution. Furthermore, the soil is the second-largest carbon pool after the ocean to mitigate climate change effects.
Climate change is affecting the world in far-reaching ways. Impacts related to climate change are evident across regions and in many sectors important to society; such as human health, agriculture and food security, water supply, transportation, energy, ecosystems, and others. They are expected to become increasingly disruptive throughout this century and beyond.
Impact on Pakistan
Pakistan is a low-middle-income country with a primarily agrarian economy; however, it is gradually industrializing and more than a third of the population currently lives in cities. For food and nutrition security, the country significantly relies on its climate-sensitive land, water, and forest resources.
Agriculture continues to be a significant occupation for 42% of the population. Irrigation from the glacier-fed River Indus and its tributaries support about 90 percent of farmland. Glacier melt has accelerated due to climate change, increasing the likelihood of Glacier Lake outpouring floods (GLOF) and mudslides downstream. Faster glacier melt, rising temperatures, shifting seasons, and irregular rainfall patterns are all affecting the flow of the River Indus, which will have a growing impact on agriculture, food production, and lives. Already, 39 percent of the population lives in poverty, and the loss of livelihoods indicated in this research will have a significant impact on people’s health and capacity to access healthcare.
Heat fatigue, starvation, the introduction of vector-borne diseases like dengue fever, and an increase in the burden of aquatic infections will all have an impact on people’s capacity to work and make a living.
For the past 20 years, Pakistan has consistently ranked among the top 10 most vulnerable countries on the Climate Risk Index, with 10,000 fatalities due to climate-related disasters and financial losses amounting to about $4 billion from 173 extreme weather events. These challenges threaten to spark climate-related conflict over resources — such as water — that have become scarce due to climate change impacts. Climate-related disasters like floods, heatwaves or tsunamis can also exacerbate tensions among groups who already have a history of conflict.
Any of these scenarios would be a serious threat to Pakistan and have serious ramifications for any government in the immediate aftermath of a climate disaster or as part of efforts to mitigate future disasters.
Smog is another major issue in Pakistan’s industrialized eastern Punjab region, where the provincial capital, Lahore, is clogged with smoke throughout the winter months. Authorities said they are working to solve the problem, which involves thousands of brick kilns.
National and provincial governments are working in lockstep right when it comes to energy conservation. But this cooperation will need to be sustained over the long haul. Unlike Covid-19 where we have vaccines and other mitigation tools, climate change is a significantly more complex challenge that will require long-term coordination and commitment. Almost PKR 10 billion (approximately $50 million) has been allocated to the Ministry of Climate Change under the 2022-23 national budget, a decrease from PKR 14 billion in the 2021-22 national budget. This change is likely due to the economic situation in the country but still shows a commitment to the issue and continuity between governments as the PTI government’s signature “10 Billion Tree Tsunami” project received an earmark.
Alongside these domestic efforts, both the United States and Pakistan should hold a second meeting of the U.S.-Pakistan Climate and Environment Working Group, following the first meeting held in September 2021. This working group could serve as the springboard to begin repairing and resetting the tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship as addressing climate change and promoting regional stability is in the interest of both nations.
All mainstream political parties agree that climate change is a threat to Pakistan’s social and economic stability. Addressing climate change in Pakistan truly requires a “war footing” and a whole-of-government approach. Otherwise, the consequences of inaction or improper action could foster greater turmoil and strife at all levels of Pakistan. It’s one of the paradoxes of global warming. Burning coal or gasoline releases the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. But it also lofts pollution particles that reflect sunlight and cool the planet, offsetting a fraction of the warming. Now, however, as pollution-control technologies spread, both the noxious clouds and their silver lining are starting to dissipate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report provides scenarios on the evolution of air quality as temperatures increase throughout this century.
If greenhouse gas emissions remain high, such that global temperatures rise by 3° C from preindustrial levels by the second half of the 21st century, surface ozone levels are expected to increase across heavily polluted areas, particularly in Asia. This includes a 20% jump across Pakistan, northern India and Bangladesh and 10% across eastern China.
Fossil fuel emissions will cause ozone increases that will most likely trigger heat waves, which in turn will amplify air pollution. Therefore, the heat waves that are becoming increasingly common due to climate change, are likely to continue degrading air quality.
To avoid this, the IPCC suggests a low-carbon emissions scenario, which would cause small, short-term warming prior to temperature decreases.
A future world that follows this scenario would also benefit from reduced nitrogen and sulfur compounds from the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface, where they can damage ecosystems.
WMO stations around the world would monitor the response of air quality and ecosystem health to proposed future emissions reductions.
This could quantify the efficacy of the policies designed to limit climate change and improve air quality.
The author, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Shaikh is freelance writer, columnist, blogger and motivational speaker. He write articles on diversified topics. Mr. Shaikh could be contacted at [email protected]