What is smog?
The term 'smog' was first coined in the early 20th century in London to describe the low-hanging pollution that covered the city. Smog is formed as a result of chemical reactions among suspended particles in lower part of the atmosphere, less than 5km above the ground and constitutes a mixture of air pollutants including ozone, dust particles, smoke particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrous oxides and oxides of sulphur.
What does AQI (Air Quality Index) mean?
1. "Good" AQI is 0 to 50.
2. "Moderate" AQI is 51 to 100.
3. "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups" AQI is 101 to 150.
4. "Unhealthy" AQI is 151 to 200.
5. "Very Unhealthy" AQI is 201 to 300.
6. "Hazardous" AQI greater than 300.
What do you do when the air you breathe is a choking fog? That is the question faced by residents of Lahore and much of Punjab every year, when smog descends on their homes and streets, bringing with it a host of illnesses.
Environmental concerns have always been placed on the back burner in Pakistan for a variety of reasons. A lack of awareness and funding make our environmental efforts half-hearted at best, and then there has been the lingering perception that talking about the environment is a concern for developed nations, and not a country like Pakistan. Then there is the eternal debate between conservation and development and inevitably conservation has lost out with many leading environmentalists being laughed off as starry-eyed do-gooders who want to de-industrialise Pakistan.
However, what the smog has done is bring home the fact that being concerned about the environment is not a subject only to be broached by the elite, but one that directly affects the lives and health of millions of Pakistanis and consequently takes a huge toll on the economy as well. A paucity of research and statistical analysis makes it difficult to arrive at a figure for Pakistan, but we can look at the cases of India and China – both of which have a serious smog issue – for reference.
The Cost of Smog
According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution has been estimated to be responsible for the deaths of 4.2 million people each year. To put that figure in context, note that in 2016 only about 35,000 people were killed in acts of terrorism, just over a million died due to HIV and AIDS and about 1.34 million died due to road accidents. This places air pollution near the top of the list of global killers.
As for the economic cost, note that an MIT study estimated that in 2005 air pollution cost the Chinese economy a whopping $122 billion loss due to lost labour and healthcare costs. Even this estimate does not factor in the loss caused when severe air pollution leads to the grounding of airplanes and the closure of airports. The cost is also magnified when we consider that, according to a study by America’s National Bureau of Economic Research, which makes clear that ‘as air pollution rises, Chinese citizens spend more money on items like air pollution masks and less on consumer goods.’ As air pollution levels rise more shoppers tend to remain indoors causing sales to fall. Thus we can imagine that the actual economic costs of air pollution may be far higher than even this estimate.
Coming to India, a World Bank study revealed that India lost 8.5% of its GDP in 2013 as a result of lost labour and healthcare costs due to air pollution, and a local study has found that air pollution cost Mumbai and Delhi $10.66 billion (approximately Rs. 70,000 crore) in 2015.
Simply by looking at these figures, we can estimate that while the loss to Pakistan’s economy may not be as great, it is certainly more than we can afford. As opposed to the conventional wisdom that states that the costs of slowing down businesses in order to fix the environment is prohibitive, we are increasingly realizing that the costs of letting the environment be destroyed is far greater.
What are the Causes of Smog in Pakistan?
In order to solve a problem, one must first understand what the causes of the problem are, and there has been some confusion on this point as to what are the main causes of smog in Pakistan. Luckily, we now have a comprehensive report authored by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations that lays bare the facts and also proposes solutions.
While the report acknowledges the regional nature of smog (sources of smog being detected in Afghanistan, India and Iran) it makes clear that the primary sources for smog in Pakistan are all local, and can be controlled if the will and capacity are present.
You may be surprised to learn that the main culprit here is the transport sector which, as per the FAO’s report, holds a 43% share in air pollution. This is less of a surprise when you note that the transport sector ‘accounts for 38% of the total energy consumption (48MTOE). 90% of the fuel used in this sector is oil (diesel and gasoline) representing 57% share of the total petroleum products, while compressed natural gas (CNG) and electricity meet the remaining requirement of 22%.’ While the increasing use of CNG in vehicles did lower emissions for a while, prevailing gas shortages have reversed this trend and vehicles have mostly switched back to fossil fuels, primarily diesel in the transport sector. This brings our attention to the quality of fuel being used in this sector, and here there is a lot of room for improvement. Currently the standard of fuel being used is very low, and results in the unacceptable release of particles and noxious gases such as nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide and sulphur. Currently Pakistan is struggling to implement the use of Euro two standard of fuel, while the rest of the world, including India, have moved far beyond that. In 2017, when the government issued directives to introduce Euro three and Euro four standard diesel, they were bitterly opposed by oil marketing companies and refineries. The cost of that opposition is clear now.
The complete recommendations can be found in the FAO report but to summarise, there is an immediate need to improve fuel quality, to focus on mass transit and also to improve the quality of engines being used in Pakistani vehicles. Vehicles already in use must also be subjected to regular inspection and subjected to stringent fines if they fall short. In the long-term the switch to electric cars will likely solve this problem, but that day is distant indeed.
After transport, the next sector that contributes the most (25%) to smog in Punjab is the industrial sector which, in this case, are the power and manufacturing sectors who happen to be the biggest users of fossil fuel. While it is not possible to even temporarily shut down these sectors, greater regulation of the kind of fuel that is used, and strict monitoring of emissions from this sector are direly needed. This doesn’t mean that the focus should be on large power and cement plants alone, to name just two, but also on the brick kiln sector, which is the biggest user of coal after the power sector. If tackling the transport lobby proved impossible for successive government, one wonders how this particular cat will be belled. Regardless, the report recommendations are worth reading.
Finally, this brings us to the agriculture sector and here we focus primarily on crop burning. This is a purely seasonal issue and likely the easiest to control, which makes it all the more unfortunate that this is the sector that contributes only 20% to air pollution levels. Given that smog in Punjab usually occurs from October to December (due to prevailing weather patterns) the focus of the report is on the burning of rice residue. To curb this one needs to understand the reason that farmers choose to burn their stubble. This is due to lack of time and resources and farmers need to clear their fields for the next crop and usually do not want to take the time needed to use other means. Secondly, those means are usually far more expensive than the crop burning method and are beyond the reach of most farmers. Here, the government can help by providing both awareness and support to farmers to get them to adopt less environmentally destructive methods. Technology can help, such as the use of ‘Happy Seeder’ machines which remove the need for burning. Farmers can also be taught to take advantage of the rich biomass provided by crop residue to further fertilise their fields, and there are many examples found globally on how to do so.
Will We Take Action?
As we can see, the solutions are in our own hands. It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that once a thing is out of sight, it is also out of mind and given that the smog has lifted for now, odds are that we will return to business as usual. The only problem with that is that the smog, too, will return. And every year it will take a greater toll, thanks to our inaction.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.
E-mail: [email protected]
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