Smog hit Lahore and various parts of Punjab at the beginning of this month. This is the first time smog has reached Punjab’s cities. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the smog levels were low to mid-level. It was not at a lethal level that could lead to deaths – as happened during London’s Great Smog of 1952 when almost more than 12,000 deaths were reported. The Beijing smog in 2012 was also dangerous and resulted in large numbers of casualties.
But this danger has now reached the Punjaba rea, especially Lahore in Pakistan and Delhi in India. Health complications and casualties due to traffic accidents were reported as well. The casualties in Delhi were on a higher side as the smog described there was between mid and high levels. The situation in Pakistani Punjab was somewhat different as certain health impacts were reported but no major casualty took place. Indirect impacts did, however, lead to a large number of road accidents.
The direct and indirect impacts of the smog have been devastating. One should know the reasons behind these smoggy clouds so that specific mitigating strategies can be adopted by the government and our policymakers.
Air and its pollutants have no boundaries and can easily travel with wind turbulence. Air pollution is complex and has local and transboundary impacts. Pollutants are dispersed through wind turbulence causing transboundary impacts. Smog is a mixture of different pollutants, including oxides of nitrogen (NOX), oxides of sulphur (SOX), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and the ozone. Among all other pollutants, NOx is the major factor behing the build up of smog.
While studying the baseline ambient air quality during the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study of the ‘Master Plan of Lahore Division 2035’ in October-November 2015, it was found that CO and PM at all major places of the Lahore division were twice the National Environmental Quality Standards, although NOX and SOX were well within limits. As NOX is the major precursor for smog, the question is: from where did it come, particularly in the quantity that triggered the reactions that build up smog?
Environmental experts have diverse views about the issue, with some saying that large-scale burning of agricultural waste stock in Indian Punjab may have been the major reason. This was also confirmed from Nasa satellite imagery.
Before sowing new crop, farmers often set fire to the fields. According to environmentalist Noman Ashraf, the Punjab Agro Industries Corporation Limited in India had set up agri-waste processing facilities and sold the pallets to biomass power plants and to industrial processing as an alternative to coal.
Over the last 10 years, farmers have continuously asked for more money for agri-waste, which sometimes became impossible to fund in a fiscally responsible manner. The rates of agri-waste have almost doubled since 2013. The recent burning spike is because farmers in Indian Punjab, who had originally been selling agricultural waste – especially of paddy fields – to biomass power plants, burnt their agri-waste this year after their requested price was turned down.
This gap created production pressure on coal power plants and resulted in high emissions. Some experts have said that it is the coal power plants on the Indian side. Almost 132 coal power plants are operating in India; they are producing 64 percent of total electricity. All experts in one way or another point to India as having caused the NOx that led to the smog.
What are the scientific reasons behind NOx? Coal contains almost 1.0-3.5 percent of nitrogen content which is much higher than agriculture waste that has around 0.3-0.7 percent. This means that burning agriculture waste does not emit as much NOx as does the burning of coal. NOx emissions that are produced during the burning of coal ultimately enter Punjab and travel towards the Himalayas. They start getting diluted with the pure air of the Himalayas and most of the NOx sinks in the ice. The NOx that enters Punjab due to the wind direction is the problem can be and considered a transboundary air pollution issue.
Vehicles are another major source of NOX. Almost 38 percent of the world’s NOx emissions come from vehicles. This is in comparison to 24 percent of NOx emissions via electricity production and distribution. Agriculture waste accounts for only 1.4 percent of NOx emissions.
With very low wind turbulence at the start of October, these NOx emissions from transboundary coal power plants – in addition to local city vehicles – slowly started to build up and ultimately reached the level where the reaction takes place. The value of NOx measured by the Environment Protection Agency Punjab on Nov 5 eventually cleared the picture.
The NOx value taken at Mohanwal near Bahria Town was 525.17 ug/m3 against the baseline value 28 ug/m3, is almost 18 times higher than the baseline value. This amount of NOx is enough to spark a reaction to produce ground-level ozone and then smog.
As mentioned earlier, NOx mainly acts as the precursor to smog. Therefore, steps should be taken in order to reduce NOx emissions. The use of personal vehicles should be reduced and public transport should be promoted. This recommendation is also given in the EIA Lahore Division Master Plan. Vehicles should also be properly tuned in order to reduce NOx emissions. The traffic police should implement maintenance of vehicles by checking them and imposing fines on owners for non-maintenance.
The case of NOx emission from power plants in India should be taken up on international forums like the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement. India should be forced to reduce its emissions and credit payment should be made to Pakistan for the amount of emissions that come from India.
The last but most important step is tree plantation. Massive tree plantation drives should be carried out in all of Punjab. The ecological study of the Lahore Division Master Plan has suggested the right kinds of plants that should be planted in the Lahore division.
The writer is chief environmentalist and environment expert at SEAL, Pakistan.