Clearing the air of toxic smog


Sharmin Arif and Shehryar Nabi

Last October, Punjab was blanketed by grey soot, which not only hampered visibility, but stung the eyes and created a burning smell that was toxic to inhale. This was unprecedented. Smog in Lahore is usually not so dense and dark, nor does it settle on the city as a layer of grime.

The smog was a mixture of fog and a soup of air pollutants spewing from vehicles’ exhaust, industrial smoke, backup generators, open waste burning, and crop burning. Lahore wasn’t the only city to fall under its haze; thick smog extended across cities in Punjab and Northern India.

The Consortium for Development Policy Research recently brought together three Lahore-based experts, a government official, and one Indian researcher (via Skype) to discuss the consequences of smog and strategies to prevent it.

Here are some key insights gleaned from the event:

Why do we see smog, and how bad is it?

While air pollution is severe year-round, smog is only visible in cooler months because of a meteorological process known as thermal inversion, explained by Sanval Nasim, Assistant Professor of Economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Cold air gets trapped between layers of hot air, constricting air movement and concentrating air pollution.

Ali Habib, Managing Partner at Hima Verte, pointed out that the predominant irritant found in Lahore’s air is a particulate known as PM 2.5. Smaller than one-fortieth the width of a human hair, these tiny particulates can get permanently lodged in human lungs with constant exposure. Lahore’s PM 2.5 levels average at 68 per cubic meter, nearly seven times higher than what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe, and 4.5 times higher than Pakistan’s own standard. PM 10 has also been found in large quantities in Lahore’s air and poses a health hazard, though less severe than PM 2.5.

Severe air pollution costs lives and money. According to the Air Quality-Life Index, Pakistan’s life expectancy would increase by 2.5 years if WHO standards were met. According to a World Bank report, air pollution is connected to 10 percent of deaths worldwide and costs South Asia almost one percent of its gross domestic product.

Tackling big polluters

To check the emissions of large polluting industries, the government’s prevailing policy has been command and control: Enforce a limit on how much stationary sources can emit toxic chemicals. Sanval Nasim argued that this policy suffers because it imposes blanket limits on very different kinds of emissions sources. The standards ought to change depending on the source, and the government has been ineffective at differentiating between polluters. Santosh Harish, Associate Director of Research (India) at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, added that command and control policies are also expensive and difficult to enforce, making them ultimately counter-productive.

Nasim described two price-based mechanisms that would be more effective. One is setting a per unit tax on emissions, which, in the firm’s perspective, functions as a “price” for polluting. As long as the price of emissions is higher than cost of reducing emissions, it’s in the firm’s best interest to reduce emissions. This could incentivize the adoption of green technology and raise substantial revenue for the government.

The other is tradable permits. After setting a limit on emissions, firms can pollute at that limit by purchasing a permit. These permits can be exchanged between firms in a regulated market. While this system has worked well in the United States and the European Union, a major challenge is the initial allocation of permits to prevent a few companies from gaining a monopoly over selling permits.

While these policies could work for stationary sources of emissions, Nasim proposed two additional policies to keep vehicles in check. The first is imposing a congestion tax – a toll for driving through high-traffic areas at certain times of the day. This could encourage more people to carpool and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, in turn reducing emissions. The second is to require cars to receive regular emissions checks, which could prompt less vehicle use.

Getting farmers to stop burning crop stubble

Talking about India, Santosh Harish commented that reducing crop stubble burning should focus on alternative methods to dispose of the stubble. But this hasn’t been easy. Existing bans on stubble burning have been ineffective. While alternative harvest machines could work, it is unclear whether they are used regularly and enforcing their use is a big challenge. A possible solution is to pay farmers to deposit stubble at a collection point, but it will still need to be disposed without burning.

Lower air pollution could be a byproduct of government reform

To curb air pollution from small-scale sources such as construction dust, stubble burning, and open trash burning, Harish argued that improving municipal governance overall would go farther than intervening on each individual issue. For example, if waste collection authorities increased their capacity to do what they are already supposed to, we would see less open-air trash burning. If the overall quality of road construction improved, less congestion would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and thus road dust. These benefits for air quality would essentially be “built-in” features of broader improvements in government capacity.

Citizens need to own the problem

The panel unanimously underscored the importance of increasing citizen demand for air pollution. Until that happens, polluters will not be held accountable for meeting government emissions standards. Harish noted that the discussion surrounding air pollution is currently too technocratic, leaving most citizens unengaged. Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, said that better communication of air quality data can create the political constituency needed to put pressure on politicians for prioritizing air pollution in the 2018 General Election.

Pakistan and India need to work together

Because air pollution is a regional problem, Pakistan’s cities will continue experiencing smog from India even if it takes effective unilateral action. The same is true of India’s cities. That’s why Pakistan and India need to collaborate.

Political tensions make that difficult, of course, especially when it comes to getting both governments to talk to each other. However, Santosh Harish and Rafay Alam proposed a solution outside of government engagement: A cross-border university network to monitor and compile air pollution data.

This is, in fact, something the government desperately needs. Saif Anjum, Secretary Environment Protection Department of the Government of Punjab, commented that the government’s current data on air pollution is scanty. IT cannot distinguish between polluters, nor does it know how much an intervention will be worth its investment. He said that not only does the quality of data need improvement, but the ability to determine its relevance for policy needs to be embedded within the policymaking process. The Punjab government’s capacity to do that is limited.

A university network could present this data to governments and citizens. This will give us a better grasp of where air pollution is concentrated, which goes a long way towards taking the right course of action.

Sharmin Arif is a communications assistant at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.

Shehryar Nabi is a communications associate at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.