Curbing air pollution

Tackling air pollution requires timely and effective measures

Curbing air pollution


he average air quality index in the year 2021 of Pakistan remained at 156, with an average PM 2.5 concentration of 67.5 µg/m3, which is 13 times more than permissible according to the World Health Organisation. This makes Pakistan the third most polluted country in the world and second most polluted country in Central and South Asia to live in. The most prominent anthropogenic sources of air pollution in Pakistan are excessive use of fossil fuel combustion, transportation sector, chemicals, dust and rapid and unplanned population growth and urbanisation. Various studies have concluded that 50-60 percent of air pollutants come from fossil fuel burning and 9-30 percent are contributed by biomass burning and waste burning. The increase in the number of vehicles and low-quality fuel is the leading cause of air pollution in urban areas of Pakistan. According to the World Health Organisation, the major air pollutants are particulate matter (PM 2.5 & PM 10), carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone.

Bad air quality not only disrupts the education system by shutting down schools during smog season but also causes serious health issues among children, women, the elderly, and sensitive health groups. It also affects our economy by affecting domestic flights and tourism. It’s been more than two decades since citizens and civil society started raising their voice about poor air quality. Still the governments have been unable to address this issue in a satisfactory manner.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution, passed in 2010, gave the provinces the power to govern and legislate in many areas, and financial autonomy. Every province has its environmental policies in place. Every province also has environmental protection agencies to regulate environmental quality standards. The job of these agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is to monitor sources of pollution, including air pollution and make the data available to the public. Over the years the air pollution data has been a matter of grave concern. It is either not produced digitally or made publicly available by government agencies. At some stage, the Punjab made its data available but this has not been a regular service. It is hard to find data on other provinces. There are many private data providers actively providing air quality data in real-time. Poor governance and lack of human resources at environmental protection agencies have resulted in a poor air quality in Pakistan.

Another reason for not being able to address this issue is the lack of environmentally friendly public transportation. The Punjab and Sindh do have some mass transit arrangements, but these do not meet the public demand for transportation. The number of private vehicles is increasing by the day. According to the National Transport Research Centre (NTRC), the total number of vehicles in Pakistan is 7.6 million. To meet the requirements for these vehicles, Pakistan used a total of 127 million cubic feet per day (MMCFD) of compressed natural gas (CNG) and imported 6 million tonnes of liquified natural gas (LNG) in 2019-2020. Low fuel quality and poor maintenance of engines raise the pollutants concentrations in the air.

The air quality index in major cities of Pakistan remains high throughout the year, but emergency measures are only taken during the smog season. The focus remains on seasonal contributors, i.e., farmers; although the transportation sector remains the main contributor.

The air quality index in major cities of Pakistan remains high throughout the year, but emergency measures are only taken during the smog season. The focus remains on seasonal contributors, i.e., farmers, although the transportation sector remains the major contributor. Data shows that AQI remains high throughout the year.

There is a huge gap between academia, industry, civil society and the government. One way to solve the problem is to establish an Air Pollution Control Secretariat at the federal level. Its members should come from academia, industry, the private sector, provincial environmental protection agencies, district administration, civil society, media and parliamentarians from the national standing committee on climate change. The APCS should help us overcome coordination issues as well as reporting issues. Academia, through their technology transfer offices, should connect industry and innovation. If universities do not have such offices, they should help students interact with industry. The industries, including the transport sector, should be asked about their demands for tackling issues related to emissions. The academia should carry out research and provide solutions. Civil society should provide feasibility studies for implementation and best practices from across the world. The private sector should invest in the proposed solutions. The federal government should pool resources through Green Climate Fund and Loss and Damage Fund and help the provinces increase their investment in electric vehicles. A comprehensive strategy for waste management, afforestation, congestion charges and working from home should be discussed among stakeholders and a plan devised. District administrations and provincial environmental protection agencies should implement this plan. Parliamentarians should ask for a quarterly progress report from each province. Environmental lawyers should pursue the complaints against non-complying industries in courts. Quarterly progress reports should be shared with the media. Prime time talk shows should hold the governments accountable. The APSC should have a dedicated website. Data should be made available to the public.

The public should make sure that no development project is finalised without an effective environmental impact assessment. Town and city planners should be part of every development project, particularly housing schemes. The issue of air pollution can be tackled through comprehensive planning and collective actions. For cross-boundary air pollution issues, the Malé Declaration should be invoked using platforms like the SAARC.

At the individual level, we should be aware of our carbon footprints and make conscious choices as consumers. Repeating outfits, carpooling while travelling, cycling, planting trees and effective use of kitchen waste should be the norm.

The writer is a US-based environmental expert. She is also a senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. She tweets at @S_Maryam8

Curbing air pollution