Darkness To Light? Solar Power To Tame Pakistani Extremism

Solar-powered street lights in Pakistan
Solar-powered street lights in Pakistan
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer

Using the power of light to combat the dark ideology of the Taliban. It sounds like the start of a bad movie, but that is exactly what Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the Pakistani province of Punjab, intends to do.

“More jobs will mean fewer extremists because we can give people a better chance in life,” says Sharif, who is also the brother of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

At the heart of his development plans is a major solar power plant. Nearly 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) in the south of Punjab, Pakistan’s most prosperous and stable region, have been earmarked for the project. The plant could provide around 700 megawatts of energy. Sharif is now asking for support from the Pakistan German Business Forum in Berlin. “We have the sun, you have the technology. Let’s work together.”

Shahbaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s new Pakistani government, in which his brother Shahbaz is one of the most influential figures, is particularly focused on the economy. Sharif’s party, the PML-N, has its roots in Punjabi industrialists and landowners, and it is providing clear incentives to entice investors into the country. In some industries, including the energy sector, foreign companies are exempt from taxes for the first 10 years.

A question of survival

Pakistan is an incredibly poor country. According to the IMF, average annual income is $3,056, which places it at No. 141 of 188 nations. But the tax breaks for foreign companies are a sacrifice to the country’s own interests. For Pakistan, developing a reliable energy supply is a question of survival.

Pakistan requires around 13,000 megawatts of energy but only produces 7,000. Even the largest and most developed cities sometimes go without electricity for 18 hours within a two-day period. The previous government’s inability to solve the energy problem was one of the main reasons for its election defeat.

Energy is a divisive issue in a country where most do not have access to it — while the political elite who live in air-conditioned houses with home entertainment systems do not have to pay for it. It could be one of the factors that allow the Taliban to gain a foothold in Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons and 200 million inhabitants. But this population also shows signs of promise. Some 65% of Pakistanis are under 30, and 88 million of them can speak English. A new middle-class is developing and could represent an important market, especially when it comes to electricity.

“Pakistan needs to catch up,” says Günter Zwickl, CEO of Siemens Pakistan. “As a company we have the technical answers to the challenges in the energy sector, but at the moment it is very difficult to finance projects on this scale as many banks still class Pakistan as a risky country. There are no major problems with securing up to a few million euros, but after that point, banks demand higher interest rates because of the risks.”

Even though the security situation in Pakistan remains tense and has an impact on the economy and investment, Zwickl claims that Siemens’ daily business remains unaffected. It is only a few regions and cities that distort the view of the entire country, he says.

Employment is key

Siemens has been active in this part of the world since 1922, and now its four main focuses are energy, infrastructure, industry and health technology. The company employs 1,500 people locally and produces transformers as well as low- and middle-voltage appliances. “We’re generally satisfied with our business in Pakistan. The biggest challenge for the new government is creating even better conditions for new investment,” says Zwickl.

Security is at the top of the agenda. The government announced peace talks with the Taliban, but negotiations were put off when a U.S. drone killed the leader of the Pakistani branch, Hakimullah Mehsud. It is likely that the next few months will see increased violence, which would delay a political solution. In any case, the problem of terrorism can only be solved when militants are reintegrated into society — and that requires jobs.

Economic factors play an important role in radicalization. The Taliban often recruits former students at Koran schools, and it is mostly poorer families who send their children to a madrasa, where they are provided with free food and accommodation. It is estimated that the Pakistani Taliban pays its militants between 300 and 400 euros a month — which is a significant motivation in a country where a policeman earns on average 140 euros a month.

But there are promising signs. During the last two free elections in Pakistan, Islamist parties did not even win 10% of the vote. Further economic development could bring lasting change to the country. But first it needs power.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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