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November 15, 2018

Something in the air


November 15, 2018

Miasmas, itching eyes, irritated throats and wheezing are the new normal of the atmosphere in the major cities of Pakistan, which have a large number of private vehicles running on dirty fuel, discharging the witch’s brew of particulate matter, toxic sulphur compounds, and greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The presence of particulate matter rings alarm bells for environmentalists and health practitioners, underlining the gravity of the danger to our environment and health. There are two type of particulate matter: PM2.5 and PM10. PM10 is around 10 micrometres or less and PM2.5 is 2.5 micrometres, the smallest and most dangerous particulate matter.

The single largest source of particulate matter is the fuel-guzzling road transport that is fed on dirty petrol and Euro-II diesel with high sulphur content. The coal-fired power plants and the burning of solid waste in the open also disperse dangerous aerosol. There are a couple of particulate precursors such as nitrogen oxides and ozone that give cities a dystopian, smoky look throughout the year.

The pungent air of busy traffic lanes and the itching eyes are characteristic of the ubiquitous toxic sulphur dioxide that casts a dark shadow on our health and, consequently, the economy.

According to a report published in 2015 by the medical journal Lancet, 22 percent annual deaths in Pakistan are the result of air pollution. The percentage of these deaths is increasing at an alarmingly rate. In 2015, environmental pollution was responsible for over nine million deaths across the globe.

Air pollution-induced diseases are mainly caused by ozone and PM2·5 that lodges deep in the lungs, causing varying degrees of bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. These aerosols are also responsible for 2.5 million premature global deaths and increase the risk of ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and impaired cognitive functions.

Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi have some of the highest levels of particulate pollutants globally. This comes at a harrowing cost: serious disease incurs a high medical cost and a reduction in labour productivity. But the ring of fire that hangs over us is the World Bank’s observation that alarmingly high pollution levels and low living standards across the major cities has compelled “expatriate executive managers [to] shy away from hiring from the Pakistan job market”.

Confronted with stark climate-change episodes, we need to adopt a better fuel mix comprising cleaner fossil fuels, eco-friendly CNG, LPG and renewables to harness the safe air around us.

We also need to cut down on the high sulphur content in fuel and shift towards using cleaner petrol and Euro-V grade diesel that gives off only 10ppm of sulphur as compared with the current Euro-II grade diesel, releasing 500ppm of the deadly poison. With 15 million vehicles plying the roads of Pakistan’s cities and with this number growing rapidly every day, the decision to remove subsidies from a BRT project is perhaps not a wise option. Many European countries are incentivising public transport projects to cut down on air pollution and road congestion.

Governance is the biggest bane of our political systems and state institutions don’t act until push comes to a shove. This happened earlier this year Chief Justice Saqib Nisar ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to install air-quality monitors across the country and enforce laws about excess emissions from factories, brick kilns, and vehicles.

The CJ also recently snubbed PSO for importing a highly contaminated fuel when cleaner options are available. An opportunity is on the horizon. The Kuwait Petroleum Company has asked PSO to phase out Euro-II diesel as it is switching to the ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD) by 2020. This is a critical decision-making time. However, the proposal is being debated on grounds of an additional dollar per barrel cost for the cleaner product.

A cost-benefit analysis establishes the terrible consequences of continuing on the road of high-sulphur fuel. A cleaner fuel will not only reduce the particulate matter escaping into the surrounding air, but will also lower the amount of sulphur dioxide gas. Isn’t the provision of a cleaner and safer environment that guarantees health worth more than having inexpensive fuel? Many countries have switched to ULSD and are installing catalytic converters in road transport to keep people from harm’s way.

It seems that we are eons away from countries struggling to keep the air clean, as environmental issues don’t drive electoral politics. While the ULSD decision is one manifestation, the other example is the uncalled-for increase in CNG prices by up to Rs20, which is an outright health and environmental scandal.

The CNG-LPG doesn’t emit particulate matter and emits very little carbon dioxide and GHGs. Tax policies must also be structured to promote cleaner fuels to wean people away from toxic compounds. Introducing toxicity charges on diesel cars will also ensure cleaner air by making poisonous emissions expensive.

We also need to convert two-stroke rickshaws to four-stroke CNG engines. Many countries have introduced four-stroke motorcycles, which will substantially reduce the emission of particulate material. With fewer trees and a perpetual haze, cities are gasping for clean air. We need to address this problem as soon as possible.

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