Tuesday July 16, 2024

Battling the grey

Every winter, environment experts check Air Quality Index to see how much ‘poison’ they are inhaling

By Editorial Board
July 10, 2024
Children walk to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on December 1, 2022. — AFP
 Children walk to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on December 1, 2022. — AFP

Winter has become the most dangerous, unbearable and harmful season in Punjab. The air in the province, particularly in Lahore and surrounding areas, becomes increasingly hazardous, casting a thick, gray shroud over daily life. Previously, the provincial government had conveniently placed the blame on farmers’ stubble-burning activity, a regular feature at the end of the harvesting season. The government had thus introduced short-term and agriculture-specific measures to somehow reverse the climatic change. But it became apparent within a short period that this was too little – and probably also too late. From school closures to artificial rains, the Punjab government has so far tried numerous measures to tackle smog. But the problem has not budged. Every winter, people in Punjab, particularly Lahore, and environment experts regularly check the Air Quality Index to see how much ‘poison’ they are inhaling. Climate experts equate the inhaling of Lahore’s air to the number of cigarettes one has smoked – with the comparison leading to around 14 cigarettes a day. In 2023, Pakistan ranked as the second most polluted country, and Lahore was the fourth most polluted city in the world. This necessitated a policy shift, and, thankfully, the provincial government has realized that this issue requires all state departments to work together to keep the province clear of the awful smog.

The Punjab Environment Protection and Climate Change Department (EPCCD) has now decided to treat smog as a year-round epidemic with CM Punjab Maryam Nawaz adopting a ‘prevention is better than cure’ approach. The provincial government has announced the commencement of the second phase of its ambitious anti-smog campaign. The CM’s directive for strict law enforcement under the Smog-Free Punjab vision is a welcome development. The first phase of the campaign focused on providing facilities, technical assistance, equipment, and technology to combat smog, laying the groundwork for a more robust and effective second phase. The second phase promises a stringent crackdown on violations of environmental laws. This includes a crackdown on brick kiln owners who have not implemented Zigzag Technology, vehicles emitting smoke, industrial emissions, and individuals burning garbage, rubber, or agricultural waste. The government will also encourage carpooling and the use of public transport to bring pollution levels down. All this sounds great on paper, but we have to see how successfully the Punjab government can implement these steps. While successive governments have been quick at launching what they call foolproof and coherent plans to arrest the problem, we have seen them failing at implementing them.

The Punjab government’s latest plan is good so much so that it may convert its critics into its motivator. But a critical question is if the government is interested in adopting a zero-tolerance approach to implement its plan. Industries must adopt cleaner technologies and adhere to environmental regulations to reduce their carbon footprint. The fines and penalties must be substantial enough to act as deterrents, ensuring compliance. Traffic emissions also play a significant role in deteriorating air quality. The government must invest in and promote public transportation, encourage carpooling, and consider policies to reduce the number of vehicles on the road during peak smog seasons. Incentives for electric and hybrid vehicles could also be part of a broader strategy to reduce vehicular emissions. The enforcement of these regulations will require robust monitoring systems and the active involvement of law-enforcement agencies. Leniency at any level or a free pass to those closer to government officials can undo the government’s initiative, bringing everyone back to the starting point.