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No, India is not responsible for Punjab’s smog. Here’s what’s really happening

Poor fuel quality, not crop burning in India, is the villain in the battle for clean air.
Updated Feb 13, 2019 01:22am
Lahore is ultimately left at the mercy of weather conditions to decide if the air will be unhealthy or hazardous — but never clean. — White Star
Lahore is ultimately left at the mercy of weather conditions to decide if the air will be unhealthy or hazardous — but never clean. — White Star

After significant rainfall at the end of January, Lahoris are breathing, quite literally, a sigh of relief having braved the worst of the smog season.

The smog season is now a routine affair in the provincial metropolis, when a thick layer of pollution envelopes the city from October to January. The episodes of smog in 2016, 2017 and 2018 have come and gone with little being done to fight it.

The general understanding appears to be that unless visibility is low, your eyes are inflamed, you can smell diesel fumes and everyone you know has a cough, you can conclude that the air is clean.

That is, of course not how air quality works, but it appears to be what the government believes, with claims from the Minister of State for Climate Change Zartaj Gul that smog is now under control. The minister has also claimed that smog is a weapon of “unconventional warfare” being employed by India.

Air quality is a relatively new dimension to Pakistan’s deteriorating environment, and the lack of understanding among the public and within the government departments has become a hindrance to any major policy interventions to be successfully implemented.

An example of this is the Pakistan Clean Air Action Plan (PCAP) launched in 2005, incidentally when the current Adviser to the Prime Minister and Federal Minister for Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam was the incumbent Minister of State for Environment. The PCAP never came to fruition, with medium- and long-term objectives incomplete.

The Smog Commission’s recommendations, released in May 2018, appear to be headed for the same fate as Punjab’s Environment Protection Department (EPD) has failed to procure the required number of air-quality monitors (AQMS) even after two years.

Related: Lahore smog: It's not a natural phenomenon

Punjab requires a network of at least 240 AQMS to enable necessary data gathering; currently it has only five which provide readings routinely. In the absence of a monitoring network, a citizen-led effort, the Pakistan Air-Quality Initiative (PAQI), has been providing real-time air quality data using Swiss-made AirVisual monitors.

Instead of expanding its own network, the government tried to discredit this effort, but the manufacturer responded and rebutted the claims. The monitors set up by citizens are, in fact, among the best low-cost monitors available, according to evaluations by experts.

This tussle over data is significant. Real-time data in the hands of the public can potentially lay bare government ineptitude.

The government’s approach is both unreasonable and will lead to further deterioration of air quality. A picture posted by Aslam shows that the EPD Punjab can record real-time data, but it has never been made available for the public. The picture also shows that PM2.5 levels are nearly six times the legal limit set by the Punjab Environment Quality Standards (PEQS).

In this paucity of data, the PAQI data is second to none. The actual average monthly PM2.5 levels were recorded to be more than 20 times the legal limit in December 2018.

The University of Chicago’s Air-Quality Life Index calculates that citizens of Lahore would gain 5.1 years of life expectancy if the World Health Organisation air quality guidelines are met.

If Punjab is to be successful in its fight against smog and poor air quality, it will need an evidence-based policy approach, rather than perform a set of superficial tasks like issuing notices to a few individuals or blaming the toxic air on India.



As a starting point, the political leadership needs to show ownership of the issue, rather than engage social media rhetoric and spreading misinformation.

The crisis demands that environment experts are taken on-board for policy making, monitoring and evaluation, while career bureaucrats only be tasked with policy implementation.

Policies should never be made without evidence, and although the EPD Punjab has failed time and again to gather the necessary evidence, the data from the citizen-run network offers key insights, which can help with short- and medium-term policy formulation.

Read next: Unable to breathe

The government has so far treated air quality with the myopic view that it is a seasonal issue, starting in October and lasting until January. This is not the case and data gathered by PAQI illustrates that Lahore suffers from poor air quality throughout the year.

Citizens breathe unhealthy air throughout the year, which worsens to hazardous levels in December and January. The reason as to why air quality is hazardous particularly in these two months is the complex relationship of air quality with weather conditions.

Factors such as temperature, wind, relative humidity and rainfall affect the level of air quality in any environment. However, what needs to be accepted is that Lahore itself produces enough emissions to keep the city polluted throughout the year.

The only exception to this appear to be the monsoon months, when consistent spells of rain prevent pollutants from gathering in the air.



Average air quality index for Lahore and monthly temperature in 2018.
Average air quality index for Lahore and monthly temperature in 2018.


Environmental experts have repeatedly argued that crop burning is not the sole or even the biggest cause of poor air quality, but the EPD Punjab has been adamant in making a connection where none exists.

The most recent example is the use of NASA’s VIRS apparatus — which detects fires and thermal anomalies — by Federal Minister Aslam to suggest that Indian Punjab’s crop fires are responsible for Lahore’s poor air quality. A year-long analysis of detected fires and thermal anomalies reveals that this is not true.

Yearly patterns of regional fires and thermal anomalies between 2016 and 2018.
Yearly patterns of regional fires and thermal anomalies between 2016 and 2018.

Regional fires and thermal anomalies detected by NASA VIRS in 2018.
Regional fires and thermal anomalies detected by NASA VIRS in 2018.

Air quality index for Lahore and regional crop burning in 2018.
Air quality index for Lahore and regional crop burning in 2018.

While the majority of fires are indeed detected on the Indian side, it can also be observed that similar burning occurs in May every year, at the end of the Rabi crop season, but air quality does not suffer as has been suggested by government departments and ministers.

The same NASA sensor also shows significant detections within Pakistani Punjab.

Crop burning in May 15, 2018
Crop burning in May 15, 2018

Crop burning in Nov 15, 2018
Crop burning in Nov 15, 2018

The claim that crop burning in India causes smog in Lahore is not only without evidence, but it is statistically false with a very small correlation coefficient, illustrating the lack of scientific understanding required to deal with the crisis.

These claims are, however, not without consequence, and instead of creating the conducive circumstances necessary for a transboundary, collaborative effort between both Punjabs to tackle air pollution, it is creating further discord.

The presence of scientists and policy experts, rather than just politicians, can accelerate the path towards an environmental policy dialogue between the two sides, which will be of utmost importance in the coming years.

Crop burning and air quality correlation for Lahore in 2018.
Crop burning and air quality correlation for Lahore in 2018.


The case for an evidence-based approach in policy making is nothing new, but to make such policies, the required data sets and instruments need to be available.

As mentioned above, the EPD Punjab has made little effort to get approvals for purchase of equipment or even expand its human resources to make real-time data availability possible.

Despite drastic limitations, the recently published R-SMOG report, a collaboration between the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Punjab’s Agriculture department, is a great example of what can be achieved if departments work efficiently.

In the past, a similar evidence-gathering exercise was conducted with the help of the World Bank, which outlined in detail policy actions needed to curtail the worsening air quality in Pakistan.

Both of these studies, instead of concluding crop fires as the cause, point towards the transport sector as the biggest culprit behind air pollution.

While both studies had different methodologies and study areas, they rank agricultural sources as the third largest in proportion (In the World Bank study, ‘Other’ includes agriculture).



These findings present a dilemma undebated so far in the media and only rarely among policymakers.

Provincial EPAs and EPDs have very little control over emissions from the transport, power and industry sectors. The environment departments are tasked with vehicle and industrial emission checks, but emissions can only be controlled by preventing them, the powers for which lie solely with the petroleum division.

The World Bank study points that PM2.5 emissions in Lahore and other cities of Pakistan have a very strong correlation to carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, which means that both have the same source.

CO is primarily an outcome of incomplete combustion in fossil fuel engines. Evidence is mounting that poor fuel quality is the likely villain in the battle for clean air.

Fuel quality also impacts the power and industry sectors. Furnace oil used to produce power in thermal power plants can have sulphur content of up to three per cent. There are at least eight thermal power plants near Lahore which use furnace oil instead of the much cleaner natural gas.

The Sahiwal Coal Power Plant will likely add to power sector emissions in Punjab. The result is large hotspots of emissions which can be observed via satellite. However, the primary culprit in urban areas appears to be fossil fuel engines, especially diesel vehicles.

Pakistan adopted the Pak-2 fuel-quality standards (equivalent to Euro-2) in 1998, but uniform implementation of these standards around the country has never been evaluated.

Euro-2 diesel is known to contain 500 ppm (parts per million) of sulphur. Countries around the world are currently moving towards Euro-5 and Euro-6 standards. India, similarly, uses Bharat Standard-4, which is equivalent to Euro-4, containing 50 ppm sulphur.

Ironically, Pakistan may be forcefully pushed to adopt better standards soon, as it imports approximately 60pc of its diesel from Kuwait, which is planning to end production of diesel classed Euro-2 in 2020.

Explore: The case for environmental governance

Within Pakistan, the Hydrocarbon Development Institute of Pakistan (HDIP), which is a part of the Federal Petroleum Division, is tasked with mandates such as “the formulation of national policies for the development of hydrocarbon industry according to the national needs,” “to carry out quality control and standardization of hydrocarbons,” and “to develop and promote use of clean, economic and alternative fuels.”

Very little, if any, such work has been done since the establishment of the HDIP in 2006.

In 2016, when the Honda motor company publicly alleged that petroleum marketing companies — including Pakistan State Oil — were selling adulterated petrol, petrol companies denied it, but HDIP later confirmed the allegations.

Since then, suggested measures to provide unadulterated petrol have faced resistance from refineries. Similar resistance is behind the outdated fuel standards, with refineries reluctant to invest in desulphurisation in order to save profits.

The impact of fuel quality also explains the year-round poor air quality in Lahore and other cities, as traffic and vehicular emissions remain constant throughout the year.

The city is ultimately left at the mercy of weather conditions to decide if the air will be unhealthy or hazardous — but never clean.

The sudden onset of smog in Lahore in 2014 may perhaps have happened as a consequence of the constant increase in the number of vehicles on the roads, with resulting emissions finally becoming too great and the natural balance being upended.

Therefore, any medium- to long-term policy for clean air in Lahore will fail without cleaner fuel standards formulated and implemented by the petroleum division.


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