© WWF-Pakistan

Izmerai Durrani is Chief Executive at Delive Tree and Executive Producer at STP Films

Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate and humanity’s stamp on the natural world has shown that globalization, advances in technology, industrialization and growth of urban centres and cities, the health of the earth is at stake.

Let’s get some perspective. The world we live in today
has rapidly transformed into a global community of collectives, organizations, multinationals, and individual influencers. A globalized community has the tendency to become intrinsically interconnected, which for the most part we are. With the advance in technology, medicine and living standards throughout the world and increased globalization, humanity has benefited tremendously as compared to the past, leading to an increase in population. On a macro scale, the world human population has been growing significantly. The fastest growth of humans was in the last 100 years when the population increased from 1.65 billion in 1900 to a whopping 7.8 billion today, a seven-fold increase since then. Today in 2020, 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to around 80 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization, the gradual shift in the residence of human population from rural to urban areas, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another seven billion humans globally by 2050. That’s around 14 billion humans in thirty years.

In 1970, there were only three mega-cities across the globe, but by the year 2000, the number had risen to 17 and by 2030, 24 more mega-cities will be added. For context, a mega-city is defined as a city of considerable size and scale with a population exceeding 10 million inhabitants. Tokyo, Japan is currently the largest ‘megacity’ in the world with 37.4 million inhabitants and the number of these urban centres are expected to rise as people cluster and gravitate more towards urban areas around the world. By 2030 to 2040 a projection of 43 mega-cities is estimated. Today, the most urbanised regions include Northern America (with 82 per cent of its population living in urban areas in 2018), Latin America and the Caribbean (81 per cent), Europe (74 per cent) and Oceania (68 per cent). The level of urbanisation in Asia is now approximating (50 per cent). In contrast, Africa remains mostly rural, with only 43 per cent of its population living in urban areas. The highest population demographics are found in China, India, USA, Indonesia and Pakistan. In Pakistan alone, the daily birth rate is 10,000 births per day, that’s 400,000 plus births annually and the trend is growing every year. This overview of the growing human population gives us a glimpse of the challenges we are facing and are poised for in the future.

Taking the example of a globalised and interconnected community, large forest areas have been cut down to make way for urbanisation and farming land. Industrial fishing is leading to the depletion of a number of species of marine life, pollutants from industries make their way into the air, landfills and water bodies are impacting the environment significantly. Harmful emissions have chewed out holes in parts of the ozone layer, raised global greenhouse gas emissions and air quality levels causing the polar caps to melt and breakaway at alarming rates. Melting polar caps will cause new viruses to be unleashed into our diversity charts. The demand for coal, although reduced in first world countries, has spiked in developing nations, as have rare earth metals and lithium. Lithium is used to create lithium-ion batteries, used to power every electronic device imaginable. The demand for lithium has put Afghanistan and Bolivia, two of the most economically and environmentally vulnerable countries, which retain the largest reserves of this precious metal, where the majority of the people, live on less than a dollar a day, in an increasingly precarious situation.

The world has been on a consistent overdrive to churn out superlatives the best, the fastest, the tallest, the longest but to what end? Every year these are then updated. Superlatives in the present environment have become the norm, as a result, we the people are now desensitised to this jargon. The way we describe the present and potential future to our new audience have to be rethought. Only by looking at the whole can we identify, better address and possibly arrive at the way forward for seemingly individual issues.

How has the environment benefited with humanity on lockdown?

The topmost polluted cities in the world for air quality were Shanghai, Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai, Seoul, Wuhan, Karachi and Lahore respectively.

The World Health Organization reports the air in Pakistan has an annual average of 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 particles. That is four times the safe levels recommended by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA). Poor air quality may result in serious health effects, aggravating lung and heart diseases, and causing respiratory diseases in the general population. Globally, air pollution is already a public health crisis, as it kills seven million people each year. Deforestation and vehicular and industrial emissions contribute to the hazardous Air Quality Index (AQI) levels.

Lockdowns around the world contributed to a tangible, short-term change. Taking 10 to 25 million people and their vehicles in each city (plus districts) with a considerable percentage of the global population off the streets, shutting thousands of factories etc was bound to have an impact on the environment. The worst affected cities in the world experienced significant improvements in air quality. Lahore and Karachi, cities with high levels of PM2.5 particulate pollution, had the most significant drop in air pollution levels. The local air quality index dropped from hazardous (AQI 450) and very unhealthy (AQI 300) to below moderate (AQI 100) and to good (AQI 50 and less).

Sustaining a healthier tomorrow

Lockdowns, keeping people indoors, banning vehicles from roads and totally stopping factories from production are not feasible ways to reverse climate change; there are alternative avenues to conserve the environment and maintain healthier air quality.

The public and private sector should work on green deals in the form of government stimulus packages. Recently Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that a pandemic stimulus must focus on tackling the climate crisis. Green incentives could include green bonds and other forms of sustainable finance. The IMF estimates that a low carbon transition would require US$ 2.3 trillion in investment every year for a decade. Massive fiscal stimulus measures adopted by governments around the world to combat the coronavirus could be tailored to tackle climate change at the same time. Governments can focus on fiscal spending to promote green technologies, clean transport, sustainable agriculture and climate resilience.

We should opt and lobby for greener modes of transportation, and secure subsidies for trading in legacy vehicles for electric vehicles (EVs). We should also move towards adopting sources
of sustainable energy for power generation i.e. solar and wind. This further includes water conservation via rainwater harvesting and collection. Additionally, we can create rainwater pits that recharge bore-wells and replenish the water table. Commercial and residential solutions are now readily available to be integrated into urban and rural structures and units.

Population control in the form of family planning and education needs to be given due importance by the government. Only a well-informed population will make better decisions. Lastly, we should focus on creating urban green spaces, botanical gardens and oxygen pockets in and around cities by planting more indigenous and local species of trees and plants. This will greatly impact and help reduce pollutants in the air and make the environment healthier for the population and for generations to come.