Citizens in Pakistan have successfully challenged the government's role in allowing deforestation, which worsens air pollution and climate change. Photo credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

A judge in Pakistan has ordered that country’s government to uphold its laws and policies regarding climate change and the environment, ruling in favor of a group of citizens who challenged the government for violating their rights by allowing widespread deforestation and endangering the climate.   

Several Pakistani citizens filed the suit last year for violating their Constitutional rights to life, liberty, dignity, access to public places of entertainment and provision of available leisure places. They said the government failed to meet its obligations to protect the forest.

In a ruling for the plaintiffs, Lahore High Court Judge Jawad Hassan agreed and said the country must “safely manage, conserve, sustain, maintain and grow forests and plant trees in urban cities.” He said the government failed to adhere to several national environmental policies, including its 2012 National Climate Change Policy (NCCP).

The government is required, but failed to take “measures in the forestry sector to sequester atmospheric carbon, thereby mitigating climate change,” Hassan wrote in his decision issued Friday. Hassan also said under the NCCP, local and national governments—including its departments and agencies—are also required to conserve, restore and protect the country’s biological diversity, which they also failed to do. 

In Lahore, the largest city in Pakistan’s Punjab province and second largest in the country, residents are already battling climate impacts, including an increase in extreme precipitation events that led to widespread flooding. The episodes are expected to worsen as the climate continues to warm.

Residents say air pollution levels are causing headaches, burning eyes and other health effects. Air monitoring stations, which were defunded during the last administration, were restarted under current Prime Minister Imran Khan, but levels last winter reached five times the legal limit.

The province lost 72 percent of its tree cover between 2007 and 2015, the Punjab Environment Protection Department said in its draft Clean Air Action Plan.

The judge said that reforestation is necessary to “combat air pollution, mitigate carbon and improve precipitation.” He added, “The city is choking and the need for more than 10 million people is urban forestry bated on international best practices, urban forestation which makes the cities in Punjab healthier not for beautification.” 

Hassan ordered the government to properly follow all existing laws, to publish annual reports on the progress of reforestation, to discipline officers who fail to carry out their duties and to strictly punish those who illegally cut trees.

“Had above-mentioned laws and polices (sic) properly been implemented by the respondents’ departments in letter and spirit with proper mechanism and procedure, the forest of Pakistan could have been saved [from] further depletion and deforestation,” Hassan wrote.

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