The air is killing us. We know what we must do, but will we?

Toxic air kills around 128,000 people a year in Pakistan, according to Fair Finance Asia-Pakistan.
Published March 10, 2023

In February alone, 19 people, including children, lost their lives in Karachi’s Keamari area due to respiratory failure. Despite flawed investigations, experts insist that the deaths are linked to toxic emissions and poor air quality.

Lahore and Karachi, two of Pakistan’s largest cities, rank among the top 10 cities for the world’s poorest air quality. The air is literally killing us, and it is about time we hit the brakes and take serious action to make Pakistan liveable again for its people.

Air pollution, which is among the largest risks to public health, and climate change are inextricably linked global issues. The sources contributing to emissions of air pollutants and climate-warming gases are often the same. This linkage presents an opportunity to deal with these two globally pressing challenges of air pollution and climate change together.

Compelled by this evidence, the federal cabinet on Thursday approved Pakistan’s first National Clean Air Policy, as recommended by the Ministry of Climate Change. So where do we go from here?

Now or never

The need for a ‘clean air policy’ was identified by Pakistan’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) in 2021. The assessment underpinning the policy makes a substantial contribution towards achieving the goals set out in the NDC through the identification of concrete, specific actions that are shown to make tangible contributions to achieving clean air across Pakistan.

Toxic air kills around 128,000 people a year in Pakistan, according to Fair Finance Asia-Pakistan, a regional organisation working towards social and climate justice. A recent estimate by the University of Chicago shows that outdoor air pollution reduces life expectancy on average by 4.3 years. To put this into perspective, smoking reduces life expectancy by 10 years.

In Pakistan, the entire population of 220 million resides in areas with annual average particulate levels higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines to protect health. According to Federal Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman, “Pakistan now faces a fifth season every winter from smog. The air is so thick and dense with air pollutants in winter that in parts of the country, children cannot go to school and motorways are shut down for safety in the country’s most populous province. Urban centres are now ranked in the top most polluted cities of the world. The country needs its lungs back.”

Is that even possible? The short answer is yes.

There is potential for Pakistanis to gain between three to seven years of life in metropolitan cities if the most health damaging particulate air pollutant (PM2.5) concentrations are reduced to the WHO guideline of 5µg/m3 — the concentration of an air pollutant per cubic meter of air.

The assessment provides key insights into how Pakistan can tackle air pollution and climate change together, based on evidence developed within an integrated assessment of air pollution and climate change, the first of its kind focused specifically on Pakistan.

Firstly, it shows that the current emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases come from the same activities, with five key air pollutant source sectors: households, transport, industry, agriculture, and waste.

The assessment also cautions that while air pollution in Pakistan is currently well above WHO guidelines for protecting health, if future socio-economic trends are accompanied by an increase in fossil fuel and biomass consumption, it could further exacerbate the air quality index and its subsequent health impacts. It therefore outlines a set of actions that, if implemented, could avoid this scenario and reverse air pollutant emission trends.

Policy interventions

Five key mitigation actions — one for each of the major air pollutant emission sources — have been identified for this purpose. Together, these actions are projected to reduce the most health-damaging particulate matter air pollution by 38 per cent in 2030.

These policy interventions include the strengthening and enforcement of emission control standards for industries (10pc increase in fuel efficiency for fertiliser production by 2030), completely banning open burning of crop residues in fields and municipal waste in dumpsites, implementation of stringent vehicle emission standards (90pc of sales to be electric vehicles by 2040 and switching to Euro V emission standards), and a large shift towards clean cooking (14 million households using improved cooking stoves by 2030)

The last mitigation action envisages switching to cleaner fuels for cooking, such as gas, electricity, or using more efficient wood or charcoal stoves. This can have a double benefit for people’s health, as it reduces exposure to air pollution most strongly for those cooking using these harmful fuels, but also reduces the outdoor air pollution that every citizen is exposed to.

It is perhaps essential to note that many of these policies are already in place, yet require a much more stringent implementation process from the household to industry level.

The assessment further identifies 13 additional mitigation measures to reduce air pollutant emissions. These are:

  • Increase the share of renewable energy (excluding hydro energy) to 15pc
  • 20pc of generation capacity to be renewable by 2025 and 30pc by 2040
  • Intermittent aeration of all rice paddy fields
  • 30pc decrease in methane emissions from enteric fermentation by 2040
  • Reduce emissions from manure management
  • Increase waste collection to reach 100pc in urban areas and 50pc in rural areas by 2040
  • Capture 75pc methane from landfills by 2040
  • Increase the amount of organic waste to be composted to 75pc by 2040
  • 93pc of methane from liquid waste to be captured by 2040
  • 95pc reduction in particulate matter by applying particle filters to industrial chimneys by 2040
  • 100pc switch from traditional to efficient brick kiln use by 2040 (assuming a 20pc decrease in consumption)
  • 50pc of all households to use LPG cooking stoves and 25pc to use improved cooking stoves by 2040
  • Reduce fugitive emissions of methane from oil and gas by 99pc

If all these actions are implemented, the particulate matter air pollutant emissions across Pakistan could be reduced by a whopping 83pc.

At the same time, this set of actions would contribute to Pakistan’s climate change targets, as they could also reduce emissions of climate-warming gases such as carbon dioxide and methane by 22pc in 2050. This is a clear example of where acting locally to protect the health of communities can achieve global impacts by simultaneously tackling climate change, and contributing to Pakistan’s climate change commitments.

In addition to the recommendations laid out in the policy, it is essential that efforts to move each of the five priority interventions forward across Pakistan are supported to turn estimated air pollution and climate change benefits into reality.

This requires the development of regulations and standards in key air pollutant emitting sectors that are combined with effective enforcement. It also requires funding and financial incentives to make less polluting technologies and practices affordable and attractive to farmers, industries, waste management companies, and households.

As the policy discussions on parallel climate change and air pollution plans have been instigated, the other important aspects to consider for successfully achieving the objectives of the clean air policy include the adoption of a country-wide air quality monitoring system to record the progress and continue improving the policies and actions on the ground.

There is a need for the government to continue to utilise the momentum created by this assessment and adopt an integrated emissions inventory to enable policymakers to take stock of the progress toward the clean air policy targets.

Failure to take action now will have dire consequences, particularly in light of what we have seen in recent years.