Moving Beyond the Blame Game: Addressing Local Sources of Air Pollution

For the past several months, in Lahore and cities nearby, climate anxiety, or distress caused by environmental change, is at its highest. This is due to the pervasive health and environmental emergency brought on by dangerously high levels of toxicity in the air that have crossed all critical thresholds.

Pakistan is ranked 169th on global environmental performance and 7th on the global climate risk index. At least 135,000 people die annually in Pakistan due to health complications arising from air pollution and this is likely to increase. Following advocacy efforts by the international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, and the civil society to raise awareness of the scale and effect of this crisis, the government is now at last beginning to respond.

The smog crisis not new. It has been several years since the air quality has visibly worsened especially in the months between October to January. Despite the hazardous conditions, the government’s response has been slow. It has been the civil society that has taken the lead in informing citizens about the sources and impact of polluted air. The government’s initial stance was to place blame on neighbouring India. While smog travels to Pakistan when post-harvest crop stubble is burnt in Indian Punjab exacerbating the issue, it is not solely responsible for Punjab’s air pollution. In fact, Pakistan’s Punjab follows the same agricultural protocol. Furthermore, it is important to clarify that the air quality problem has been erroneously dubbed as the Lahore smog – it is a regional environmental failure extending from Peshawar to Dhaka.

The Consortium for Development Policy Research brought together a panel of experts to discuss this issue, its cause, the ensuing health emergency and policy responses. The year 2019 saw for the first time, a surge in intellectually informed discussions across the most afflicted cities of the country, drawing upon evidence from research done by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the air quality data being provided by Air Visual, a citizen-led air monitoring application operating in several countries. Availability of such foundational research on what air pollution is, what it does and how it is caused has enabled a vast range of stakeholders to join hands with a consensus on the steps to be taken collectively, going forward.

Currently, the Government of Punjab has four high-quality air monitors operating across Lahore district – the Met Station on Jail Road, Gulberg, Township and Wagah Town. There are also monitors installed (one each) in Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Multan. But these are too few to provide a reliable picture of the air quality both within cities and across the province. According to monitors in Lahore, the worst air is found at Wagah Town situated close to the Indian border, characterized by unpaved roads and a hub for the steel industry. The Environment Protection Department (EPD) in Punjab recognizes that the steel industry does not have mandatory pollution control equipment, such as dry scrubbers, installed, to remove the tiniest and most dangerous particulate matter from their emissions. Cross-border sources of emissions and dust worsen the air quality around this area. The cost of purchasing pollution control equipment is prohibitively high, restricting its use. Government support is thus needed in installing pollution control equipment at factories.

However, the most fundamental cause of air pollution in Pakistan remains the poisonous fumes that emanate from the use of extremely poor-quality fuel in the transport, energy and industrial sectors of the country – at least 80 percent of the critical levels of year-round air pollution can be attributed to these sectors. So far, Pakistan has been importing adulterated, low quality fuel consisting of high Sulphur content in coal and diesel. It uses Euro-2 diesel, which contains 500 parts per million (ppm) of Sulphur, releasing high levels of carbon monoxide (CO), as well as the life-threatening PM 2.5 pollutant. CO is primarily an outcome of incomplete combustion, due to substandard fossil fuel engines.

The recently announced government-sanctioned vehicular emissions checks for public sector vehicles is a necessary step but insufficient without an outright ban on the import and utilization of bad fuel. Mandating the use of only high-quality fuel is a first critical step in addressing this issue. The government is now setting the policy framework to take this step.

Moreover, EPD has only been able to convert 10 of the 157 brick kilns into Zig Zag-technology kilns, which operate at elevated productivity levels, resultantly emitting much less fumes. The remaining traditional brick kilns continue to operate in environmentally damaging ways, even using plastic and rubber as fuel.

However, the government’s policy of taking punitive action against the agricultural, industrial, energy, and transport sectors for emitting poisonous gases and particulate matter is perceived by many experts as unfair. The stance is rooted in an outdated approach towards regulation called control and command. The idea of imposing fines and bans on individuals for not conducting their livelihoods in greener ways is unjust when the state has not provided alternate choices. Instead of incentivizing individuals to switch to cleaner energy and technology, command and control environmental laws seem to hamper economic development. This approach has now become obsolete in most of the developed world.

An alternative and more effective approach can be the use of quantity-based environmental regulations such as a cap and trade system. Such a system would allow polluting industries to negotiate amongst each other the extent to which each will pollute given their emissions-reducing costs in order to remain within the combined upper limit of emissions permitted by the government. Another option can be the use of environmental regulation that is information-based, entailing naming and shaming the worst polluters by publicizing this data on public platforms. This could eventually create competition among firms to cut down emissions. The success of such strategies is reliant on easy access to and objective utilization of existing data and on-going research, as well as provision of real-time, curated data on multiple aspects related to air pollution. For such regulations to effectively work, this information has to feed into the national discourse.

The protocol set by the Clean Air Act of US establishes mechanisms to utilize data for devising evidence-informed laws to keep air pollution levels within globally accepted thresholds. This would entail that Pakistan, currently factoring in only 6 pollutants to measure air quality, include all 9 globally identified pollutants to effectively determine healthy air. As a next step, the legitimacy of the real-time and forecast data provided by the Air Visual app showing the air quality index of cities across Pakistan should be officially acknowledged as an additional resource, apart from the government-generated data available through the EPD. Though not always accurate, the Air Visual data can provide a strong base for awareness and used as a policy tool to create democratic consensus for providing a regulatory framework that ensures everyone’s right to breathe clean air and their right to information.

The official stance on measuring air quality is to use a rolling average of the daily air quality rather than measuring it at one point in time. The rolling average, provided by government monitors, is calculated by allowing pollution levels at different times of the day to be diffused with air that is away from an emission’s source, thereby giving a more realistic depiction of air quality in an area. Though the science is sound, this point becomes moot due to the insufficient number of high-quality monitors installed across the province.

The Finance Minister in his additional role as Chairperson of the Smog Monitoring Committee stated that the government has recently acquired a loan of $273 million to systematically address all environmental concerns in Pakistan. Taking stock of the data pointing at poor fuel quality as the main culprit for the heavily polluted air across Pakistan, the incumbent government has formulated an intensive strategy. There will be an immediate leap from the currently imported Euro 2 quality fuel to the import of Euro 4 and by the end of 2020, only Euro 5 fuel will be imported, which contains around 50 or less ppm of Sulphur content as opposed to 500 ppm – this will help decrease air pollution by up to 90 percent. Further, domestic oil refineries will be forced to shut down unless they upgrade their oil quality within three years. Moreover, a more ambitious intention is to incentivize the introduction of electric or hybrid vehicles for private and public transport in 2020 with a special emphasis on fueling buses with CNG, and finally, technology to burn crop stubble in steel furnaces will be imported to minimize open fires. Alarmingly, the oil industry has been persistently resisting government orders to reduce manganese content in its fuel – an extremely harmful additive for human health – even after a complete ban on adulterating fuel with this substance was levied in May 2019.

Cognizant of the fact that Lahore has lost 70 percent of its green belts in the past decade, the government is set to make an overarching move by building an urban forest in Lahore spanning 60 thousand canals.

All these steps are crucial for developing climate change resilience in Punjab and countering the ill-effects (including the worsening air quality) of fast paced urbanization.

It is now a waiting game to see whether these interventions are carried out successfully or not and how fast improvement will begin to take root in terms of balancing the country’s health, environmental and economic interests.

Sharmin Arif is the Communications Associate at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.