Sunday July 03, 2022

Clean air

October 20, 2019

How many lives does air pollution take in Pakistan? With a recent report of the European Environment Agency (EEA) confirming that poor air quality caused the loss of 400,000 lives in Europe in 2016, surely the figures are high in Pakistan too. Estimates are that over 135,000 deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution, which is likely to be on the lower end of the spectrum. While there is little that is done here to curb air pollution in a systematic way, much of Europe has a much more serious record when it comes to fighting pollution. Once big European cities like London were known for being some of the world’s most polluted ones. Smog continued to engulf London until the 1960s. Europe has been able to win the fight against smog, but the EEA report reminds us that the fight against air pollution has still not been won in Europe. Almost every city-dwelling European is exposed to pollution levels that exceed healthy levels. The situation should cause concerns about the far-reaching and long-term effects of industrialisation without taking into account the environmental impact of industrial development.

The good thing about the EU is that it takes action against countries over poor air quality. This July, the EU Court of Justice issued warnings to Spain and Bulgaria over failing to act against poor air quality. European law requires constant monitoring of the level of many air pollutants, which requires action when certain limits are reached. Mechanisms like these could form the legal backdrop for Pakistan to begin to tackle its smog problem. While Europe has still not done enough, it has done much more than we have.

Air pollution in Pakistan exceeds European levels by almost 10-20 times, and sometimes even more. Even when lives are not directly lost, millions more continue to suffer long-term breathing ailments as a result of the high levels of air toxicity. We could start with a single city, Lahore, as a test case. In the last half a decade, a smog cloud has continued to engulf Punjab’s capital city throughout the year, which gets worse in the winter months. There is a need to set up monitoring mechanisms and target numbers which must be achieved through acting against polluting industries. This cannot be done without a comprehensive approach to curbing pollution.