Apathy Chokes on Smog

Spearhead Opinion – 16.11.2016

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

lahore-air-pollution-coverPakistan’s economic growth has significantly improved this year and it is argued that Pakistan may actually be able to accelerate economic growth further in financial years of 2017 and 2018. The government is setting even higher targets of growth and it has expressed great optimism about the future of economic progress.

For a long time the government has been concerned with navigating its way out of a debate on the impending environmental crises while bargaining the country’s ecological balance for economic development. This is the same kind of shortsightedness with which Pakistan entered the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris and submitted the shortest and most poorly crafted Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) document – just 350 words and one page long. Much to its embarrassment, Pakistan was faced with multiple environmental challenges the same year: a mini-cyclone in Peshawar killing 44 people, heat waves in Karachi killing more than 1500 locals, cloud bursts in areas of Gilgit-Baltistan affecting 35717 people and floods across the country killing 238 and affecting more than 1.5 million individuals. This fall, several big cities in Punjab are engulfed by an unprecedented level of noxious smog carrying serious health hazards. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, perhaps it’s time to take the rose-colored glasses off.

The $46bn CPEC project is hailed as a potential game-changer for the chronic power crisis in Pakistan. Despite China’s promises at the UN climate summit in Paris to gradually wean the country off coal by 2030, today Chinese manufacturers continue to back the construction and running of coal power plants, only this time in developing countries instead. The CPEC project carries a lot of importance in this regard — all investment of both money and machinery flows into Pakistan: a country with weak environmental laws and regulations, and hence little accountability for environmentally damaging methods of production. If the repercussions of large-scale coal-based production are not realized Pakistan may find itself locked in a menacing fossil fuel intensive energy system for decades.

China is building at least 7,800 MW of new coal capacity under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Thar Coal-Fired Power Project is scheduled to begin commercial operations in June 2019 as one of the leading energy projects of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This will involve the excavation of Thar’s lignite coal reserves. Thar’s coal is however notoriously toxic to the natural environment. The project is expected to lead to an exponential increase in Pakistan’s carbon emission. Yet, the government is confident that the Thar project along with many other part of CPEC will help transform Pakistan for the better.

In the midst of the excitement surrounding CPEC the potential of renewable energy sources to replace coal, whether deliberately or inadvertently, has been ignored. No doubt, there are a number of independent renewable energy projects planned under CPEC: in Sindh there is the Gharo corridor which according to rough estimates has the capacity to generate around 50000MW of wind power. CPEC also includes the construction of the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park (QASP), the world’s largest solar plant: the first of which began providing electricity in August 2015; the second portion is currently under construction. The entire solar plant is expected to produce up to 1,000 MW of power by the end of this year. Nonetheless, unfortunately for Pakistan, the major thrust of CPEC is on its coal based energy projects. This is likely to provide serious challenges to the natural environment of Pakistan.

The latest smog situation spread all over Punjab echoes the years of neglect the environment has faced. Lahore, along with New Delhi, was listed among the top 10 worst cities for smog in 2014. The situation has only deteriorated since then. As things stand, medical experts have voiced serioushealth concerns, especially for children and the elderly with weak immunity to the high concentration of smog. The smog cloud that hangs over Punjab is providing favorable grounds for the growth of viruses and bacteria. Experts warn that the prevailing conditions have worsened ambient air quality to a dangerous level. PM10 and PM2.5 is alarmingly high in the atmosphere today: PM10 affects eyes, skin, throat and the respiratory system of those exposed while PM2.5 can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. Residents are at a great risk of getting cardio vascular diseases, respiratory tract infections, skin allergies to the extent of Psoriasis, eye/throat irritations, joint pains and several other smog-related diseases.

In most countries the prevailing climatic condition calls for an emergency closing down of all schools and public places to minimize exposure. However, despite scores of residents reporting breathing problems in Lahore no attempts have so far been made to limit the exposure of the average Pakistani to smog.

The government’s perpetual sluggishness concerning the implementation of economic reform is most depressing. Considering that a large proportion of the Pakistani population is dependent on agriculture Pakistan must take the threat of climate change seriously. Smog is not a natural phenomenon. The climatic condition of Pakistan has been on a trajectory of steady decline since the last five years owing to Pakistan’s participation in fossil fuel intensive and environmentally-unfriendly projects meant to ‘modernize’ the country.

One such project has been the Lahore Orange Line Metro Train Project which has come at the cost of cutting down 620 fully grown trees. The construction of Lahore Orange Line Metro Train Project stretches 27.1km from Dera Gujran to Ali Town. The project executing agency, Lahore Development Authority, pledged planting 6,200 new saplings in place of the felled trees. However, environment activists have turned down these measures as inadequate remedies proposed for the resultant air pollution caused by the project. While plantation of more trees can certainly mitigate the spell of  toxic gases, perhaps the country is underestimating the urgency of the situation: what we need is the plantation of more trees , not the removal of existing ones. Countries, like the UAE, that planted more trees observed significant changes in temperature and air pollution. Pakistan can take a leaf out of these countries’ books and begin to make significant changes to correct this grim picture.

Until we realize that a viable environmental strategy is a prerequisite for economic growth the final stages of ‘the process of modernization’ will most likely have to be witnessed from behind an air pollution mask, as in heavily polluted cities like Beijing.

Climate change, however inconvenient it may be, must be treated like a reality. The government must revisit its priorities. It is important to understand that a well-timed policy revamp today, with a view to accept responsibility and introduce environmental accountability for all climate related actions, can reap long-term sociopolitical and economic benefits for the entire nation.