Clean the air first

Jun 05 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

IF there is one thing that Covid-19 has shown us, it is that there is no getting away from it. It is here to stay and we will have to look at ways to protect ourselves. The crisis has also highlighted the extent to which our health is linked to the health of the ecosystem. If we want to live healthy lives, we need to conserve the planet and use natural resources in a sustainable manner.

While governments are busy battling the pandemic, experts from the scientific community are studying patterns of Covid-19 fatalities. Though still preliminary, their investigations show a link between air pollution and coronavirus deaths. Hence, cleaning up the air we breathe is the right place to begin the journey towards improved public health.

What does it mean for Pakistan? As the government mulls over a slew of stimulus packages to revive the economy, while ensuring that easing the lockdown is safe, the authorities would do well to review its investments in coal energy. More than 95 per cent of Pakistan’s installed coal-based electricity generation capacity (5,090 megawatts) was commissioned during the past three years and the plants are at various stages of development. All this is happening at a time when around the world the same are being scrapped — not only because of the high levels of air pollution they generate but also because they are economically unviable.

Take the example of the nine proposed coal power plants with a total capacity of 3,700 MW in Tharparkar, which has the worst human development indicators in Sindh. A recent study titled Air quality, health and toxic impacts of the proposed coal mining and power cluster in Thar, Pakistan, carried out by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), paints a horrific picture.

The government should review its investments in coal energy.

It projects 29,000 deaths related to air pollution over an operating life of 30 years, 19,900 new cases of asthma among children and 32,000 preterm births. With quality of life compromised due to breathing polluted air, most Tharis would be living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes, and be at risk of stroke.

Terming Tharparkar one of South Asia’s largest “hotspots for mercury and carbon dioxide”, the study calculated that of the 1,400 kilograms of mercury emitted annually, one-fifth will settle in water or on land. The independent research centre could only review three environmental impact assessments that were available publicly and found “errors and omissions” thereby “misleading public through data manoeuvring” noted lead author Lauri Myllyvirta, with concern. There was one EIA report that had calculated mercury content in coal but its calculations about emissions were inaccurate. The study also held those carrying out these assessments to be “misreporting”. At the same time, it questioned the role of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and the “level of regulatory oversight”. Had the EIAs been reviewed seriously, the “elementary” errors caught by CREA could certainly have been caught by the regulator.

According to CREA spokesperson, while there are affordable techniques whereby mercury emissions can be reduced by more than two-thirds, there were no emission limits in Pakistan that would require any mercury controls. With the result, plant developers can continue to completely neglect the issue. And so, it must be emphasised to Sepa how crucial it is to carry out studies to evaluate the health risks of mercury emissions since lignite coal plants are very large sources of the element.

However, for the sake of public health, perhaps the best decision — one requiring courage — would be to cancel those coal-based plants that are still in the early stages of development and not follow the route of China and the US, which is slowly pivoting towards fossil fuels. As they come up with economic recovery packages, there are reports that China wants to set up new coal plants and the US wants to use the pandemic as an excuse to relax environmental rules and impact reviews.

The pandemic has made it crystal clear that our future economic plans must be climate-smart. The 10 billion tree tsunami project has earned the government much applause. At present, it provides jobs to nearly 65,000 people and plans are underway to provide three times more employment by the end of this year. But instead of resting on its reforestation laurels, perhaps the government can direct some of its attention towards renewable energy projects that are much cheaper than mammoth toxic-spewing coal plants.

Civil society movements and environmental activists must come together and put pressure on the government to tread a greener, more sustainable path towards economic recovery, and use the opportunity provided by the pandemic to course-correct with even more stringent environmental laws and regulations, and rectify past mistakes.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2020