ISLAMABAD: From Banigala, a neighbourhood in eastern Islamabad, the hills on the other side of the busy Murree Road were hardly visible in late December 2023 due to smog, exacerbated by a consistent increase in the number of vehicles and multiple construction projects across the federal capital.

Only days before that, the weather remained mild comparatively, effectively delaying the onset of the winter season, which has started to reduce in duration as well as intensity, barring a few weeks of late December and early January.

A conclusion deduced through 10-year data on maximum and minimum temperatures reflected that the average maximum temperature of Islamabad over the past decade posted an increase of 1 degree Celsius. In 2012 and 2013, the city’s average maximum temperature was recorded at 28.7 degree and 28.3 degree Celsius respectively whereas its average maximum temperature rose to 29.3 degree and 29.4 degree Celcius in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

On the other hand,its average minimum temperature hovered around 14 degree Celsius in the last decade but has now increased to 14.8 degree Celsius. According to an official of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, “the major urban centres and their surrounding areas are impacted by temperature change which is disrupting seasonal patterns.”

Experts say city heating up, seasonal patterns disrupted due to fossil fuels

‘Age of extreme temperatures’

Dr Muhammad Afzaal, a director atthePakistan Met Department in Islamabad attributed these changes to the rise in global temperatures, saying the age of moderate temperatures was ending all over the world and extreme temperatures are becoming more frequent – leading to heatwaves and extreme cold.

Global warming has also resulted in erratic rainfall in the city, with precipitation moving towards the end of summers and winters. According to Dr Afzaal, the winter rainfall usually stretched across the months of December, January and February and it traditionally peaked in mid-January but now it has moved to late February and March. Similarly, monsoon rains, which occurred in July, August and September, have moved towards the latter part of summer, he said.

Consequently, he said, Islamabad received 87.2 millimetres of rain in 2012 but it received only 9 millimetre rain in December 2022.

Dr Afzaal said the climate of Islamabad was also adversely affected particularly by rapid urbanisation due to the population boom. “This has also led to a decrease in forest cover,” he said. Global Forest Watch, a website that keeps track of changes in forest cover, confirms this: “From 2001 to 2022, Islamabad lost 12 [hectares] of tree cover, equivalent to a 0.39% decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 4.05 [kilotons] of CO emissions,” it said.

‘Deforestation’

Due to deforestation to make way for housing societies, Islamabad increasingly experiences the urban heat island effect – which means that the city’s buildings and roads trap the sun’s heat during the day and emit it during the night thereby raising the city’s overall temperature.

According to Islamabad Wildlife Management Board Member, Vaqar Zakariya, the city has started to heat up due to no let-up in carbon emissions from vehicles and tree cutting, both of which have increased extensively over the past decade. A few decades ago, he said, the temperature difference between Rawalpindi and Islamabad was at least 2-3 degrees Celsius, but now “our G sectors and marakiz (business centres) are not much different from Rawalpindi in terms of temperature”. Only a few years ago, he added, the urban heat island effect was not there in Islamabad but now it has become fairly common since the trees and fields “have been replaced with roads and flyovers”.

Recently, Farazana Altaf, director general of Environment Protection Agency-Pakistan also highlighted the fact that vehicles were responsible for 40-45 per cent of toxic emissions in the federal capital, followed by dust from the construction sector. She, therefore, called for a ban on smoke-emitting vehicles within the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) limits from mid-November to February-end every year to overcome this problem.

Structural problems

But the solution proposed by her overlooks a structural problem – that is, the use of fossil fuels in both the transport and construction sectors. Even if transportation and construction activities are reduced in Islamabad, the city’s temperature will not come down unless it moves towards clean energy sources which effectively reduce carbon emissions, argues Hadia Sheerazi, who manages community engagement and equity-centered projects at the US-based ‘Rocky Mountain Institute’, a global environmental NGO.

“…black carbon, sulfates etc., nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO) emitted into the ambient air from low-quality fuel combustion in vehicles, including buses, in Pakistan are many, many times higher than in similar modes of transportation in the United States, and are extremely harmful to both human and environmental health,” she said.

At present, according to the Excise and Taxation Office, more than 1.5 million vehicles are registered in Islamabad. Hundreds of additional vehicles – including motorcycles – are being registered in the city on a daily basis, said a recent newspaper report. Experts, such as Basit Ghauri, who works at Renewables First, an energy think tank in Islamabad, said that a reduction in carbon emission from all these vehicles can reduce the possibility of extreme weather conditions that Islamabad is facing. “A typical passenger vehicle has a fuel economy of about 10 kilometres per litre and drives around 25,000 kilometres per year. Every litre of gasoline burned in it creates about 2.35 kilograms of CO2. This means that total emissions generated by this vehicle will be around 5.875 tonnes of CO2 per year,” he said. “Total emission from vehicles registered in Islamabad, therefore, could be equivalent to 8.81 million tonnes of CO2,” he added.

Ms Sheerazi argued that the only way to reduce these emissions was to change the source of energy being used in these vehicles to renewables. She welcomed the government’s move to introduce electric buses in Islamabad but also cautioned that the energy sources used to charge them also need to be clean so that they can make a dent in the toxic air quality of the city. “If they are charged via solar power, there needs to be a validation process to ensure that the solar panels are manufactured ethically, for example, verifying that international standards for sustainable and safe mining practices are being observed and labour laws are upheld (i.e. no child labourers are involved in extracting critical minerals),” she said.

A senior official of the Capital Development Authority, however, said these buses will be initially powered through the existing electric grid which mostly produces electricity from fossil fuels. “In future, though, a move towards the use of solar energy to charge these buses is likely,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2024

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