An environmental manifesto

Updated April 30, 2018

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I THOUGHT it might be useful for the political parties if I shared some ideas linked with creating a clean environment, as per our constitutional rights, for them to consider as they move forward with their campaigns. This way, if elected, they could play a direct role in improving air quality and solid waste management, thus reducing early deaths of Pakistani citizens.

Before I get started, I want to clarify two points. First, the 18th Amendment has devolved power for environmental management to the provinces in such an unusual way (compared with other countries) that there is no scope for the federal government to lay down a minimum standard to protect the health of citizens due to environmental factors. In that regard, the judicial system is crucial in helping to ensure that our constitutional rights are upheld. The federal government has a mandate to act on climate change and, of course, on water bodies. Nonetheless, there are ways that they could partner with provincial governments.

Second, consider trees. Trees are wonderful for holding the soil down when it is dry, but also when there are landslides, providing nuts and fruits, providing wood, providing a habitat for birds and other wildlife, providing shade, and even reducing crime (yes, there is research that shows that crime is reduced if parks are provided in low-income inner city neighbourhoods), quite apart from being beautiful. It is important though, in a country with water scarcity issues, to plant native species. However, trees’ effect on air quality is more complex. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to oxygen. This is a good thing, as carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, one that warms the atmosphere and creates climate change. However, what effect does a tree have on PM2.5, the pollutant affecting health? Researchers are just beginning to measure what we know instinctively. That dust from the air gets deposited on the leaves of trees. This, in turn, reduces the dust in the air, especially if rainwater washes it down. However, given the levels of PM2.5 in Pakistani cities, using that as the only way to clean the air is not going to do much to reduce early deaths.

What can political parties commit to doing that will make a difference to air and solid waste management?

Given the above, what can political parties commit to doing that will actually make a difference to air and solid waste management? Here are three simple ideas:

One, put forward a commitment that, if elected, the federal government will work with the provinces to improve air quality. Commit at the federal level to put in place a minimum ambient standard of PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic meter, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, for all Pakistan. PM2.5 includes a potent greenhouse gas, namely black carbon, which is a material emitted from gas and diesel engines, coal-fired power plants, and industrial boilers using fuel oil. The federal government has a mandate for climate change, so it does have prerogative to set such a Pakistan-wide standard. Since it will require time to implement this new standard, put 2022 as a time limit by when this will come into place. Put a carbon tax on high sulphur heavy fuel oil to create an environment fund that could be used to help with investments to move us in that direction. This might even, as a side benefit, help to create incentives for industry to save energy and also use low sulphur fuel oil, which should make our cities’ air cleaner.

Two, commit to working with the provinces to improve solid waste management. Commit specifically to put in place a federal law requiring that all solid waste has to be disposed of in a sanitary manner on the basis that water bodies and aquifers (a federal responsibility) are being polluted. We are in an unusual situation that there are provincial laws banning plastic bags, but no requirement for general waste disposal. Colombia faced the same situation in the early 1990s and their legislation provides a good example. Again, since it will take time to implement, put 2022 as a deadline by which it comes into effect for all of Pakistan. This might persuade the Pakistani private sector to set up local waste management companies and sanitary landfills, in which they can also reap the benefits of capturing landfill gas (another potent greenhouse gas) and generating energy. The government could even commit to helping the private sector with raising grants for partial funding of such schemes, as many Latin American countries have done. A side benefit should be the reduction of trash fires. Another benefit would be less pollution of water bodies and, therefore, less government budget to clean water, as we move to reusing the same water multiple times.

Three, take a leaf out of the European Union’s approach to ensure that citizen’s health is safeguarded, even though direct responsibility for action lies with individual countries, in their case. Commit to asking provinces and cities to prepare and publicly disclose a plan for air and solid waste management and to show publicly how they are making progress on that plan to meet the 2022 goals. Commit to blocking the transfer of funds (no matter for what purpose) from the federal to provincial governments if they do not follow up with this, or are out of compliance. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But it is what the EU requires of all its member countries, otherwise all EU subsidies to that country could be blocked. Of course, it’s important to set up a robust mechanism to assess compliance, comprised of officials from all the provinces, as well as other third-party members, and to have a publicly documented process, so that it’s both transparent and fair.

It’s a simple list of three points, but could make a real difference. Building on the water policy success, maybe after the next election, both federal and provincial politicians will start to also work together on air and solid waste management. In doing so, they will be working to safeguard the health and well-being of Pakistani citizens throughout the country.

The writer is an environmental sustainability and climate expert, and a former practice manager of the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2018