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Clean air revisited

February 18, 2019

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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.
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.

EXACTLY two years ago, this week, I wrote my first op-ed for Dawn: ‘Choosing to breathe clean air’. I wrote it because people refused to believe we had an air quality problem in Pakistan. After spending much of this December and January in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, I feel it is time to take stock of what has happened in these two years.

The first sign is positive. We actually know what the quality of the air is in these three cities. Just type Airvisual in your mobile phone or computer and download the app; it’s free. The data it shows every single minute is real-time data, crowdsourced from many different low-cost air quality monitors owned by citizens, in those cities. The Punjab Environmental Protection Department (EPD) also monitors air quality, in particular PM2.5 (remember, that is the pollutant that causes all the negative health effects), and often shows the results on its website.

The second sign is also positive. A lot of different people are talking about air quality. The Federal Minister for Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam has tweeted about the many measures being taken by the Punjab EPD this winter to address air quality. The Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI)’s Abid Omar has been active on social media for some time now, and has also been raising awareness in schools. The Pakistan Business Council organised a webinar on ‘Air Quality, Health and Industry’ in January. Karachi University and the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences held a workshop in January where air quality and related health effects were front and centre. Virtually every day in December and January, one of the newspapers included a piece on air quality.

We need air quality labs in our universities.

So, how is our air quality? We now know that Karachi’s air quality on most days in December and January was unhealthy, meaning worse than, or comparable to, Beijing. Islamabad’s was also unhealthy on many days. Lahore’s air quality was downright hazardous virtually every day. On Jan 2 at 2 pm, Lahore was number one among all the cities in the world, with an average AQI reading of around 600, with Delhi coming second, with an AQI of 245. It’s nice to be number one, but not for reducing life expectancy of your citizens. The doctors in Karachi certainly were also talking about air quality and prescribing medicine for the coughs, wheezing, bronchitis and pneumonias (the obvious symptoms, since we still are not adequately linking strokes, cancers and cardiovascular diseases to air quality).

So now comes the real test. What are we doing about it? Let’s take a look at the measures the Punjab EPD is taking to address air quality. First on the list was the number of trees planted. This is wonderful and important, but has only a tiny effect in reducing PM2.5. Other measures, such as sealing smoke-emitting brick kilns and units, and pulling smoke-emitting vehicles off the road, however, should help to reduce PM2.5. But whether it will be enough to change air quality at a city level is something we just do not know.

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan banned the import of fuel oil (which has tended to be very high in sulphur content in the past, and therefore is typically a major source of PM2.5) and also asked the refineries to improve the quality of this fuel oil. That could have a major positive impact. But we do not know whether it will be enough to bring the air quality to healthy levels, or other measures will also be needed.

It is therefore time to turn to the scientists for help. We need air quality labs in our universities. What is an air quality lab? In my mind, these are research labs in which chemists, environmental scientists, and computer scientists work together to figure out what are the major sources of pollution in our cities in different seasons (each city is different in each season, since air quality is a function of emissions and weather, including wind patterns, humidity, rain and temperature). This can be done through conducting PM2.5 source apportionment tests and preparing emissions inventories to determine the main sources of pollution. Computer models, which simulate the pollution sources, and also take into account meteorological effects, can then be developed to ‘try’ out policy measures and see the effect on air quality. This information will help decision-makers to take evidence-based actions.

Once we know what the solutions are that will truly improve our air quality, the results must also be made public. Even though the responsibility for action to address air pollution lies legally at the provincial level, and there are many actions on which they will need to take the lead, ultimately everyone will have to play a role to address the problem. The federal government has a responsibility to maintain oversight and to ensure there is action to tackle a problem that affects all citizens. There may also be measures that need federal level policy action, such as this one on fuel quality. Citizens will also have to contribute to solutions by changing their behaviour. For example, if the problem is due to transportation, effective measures could range from not letting engines idle, to reducing number of trips, to using more efficient and less-polluting vehicles.

I am very proud of Pakistan’s resilience, the determination of its youth, and its desire to make sure our children have a better future. Getting to clean air is an opportunity to work together (government at all levels, academia, industry and citizens) to make a difference. We have already taken the first two steps, namely air monitoring and greater awareness of the challenge. The next steps involve setting up air quality labs, and then taking evidence-based actions. We will know next winter (when air quality levels are typically at their worst in Pakistan), if we are succeeding or not. Those air quality monitors will tell us. And, if for some reason they are not working, the doctors, and mothers, will definitely know.

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, February 18th, 2019