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Smog is almost a fifth season in Lahore now. November is usually the worst month. Generally, air quality in Lahore and Multan regions is mostly unhealthy during Oct-Mar; hazardous during the worst days. Pakistan today is the fourth most polluted country in the world. By meeting the WHO (World Health Organisation) standards, average life expectancy in Pakistan can improve by 4.3 years - 3.6 years in Karachi and 5.3 years in Lahore.

The efforts of the PTI government and PM IK are centered around improving the environmental standards in Pakistan. The flagship initiative is tree plantation. Having more trees is necessary to improve the environment, but is not a sufficient condition to make air quality good in Central and Southern Punjab regions. More is needed on an urgent basis as the air quality index - measured based on PM2.5, is getting worse. There are other ways to measure air quality than PM2.5. However, there is a lack of air quality monitors and other runtime data points to conduct evidence-based research and come up with more effective solutions.

The Punjab government needs some nudges in the winter season to reduce air pollutants. The usual response in Lahore and surroundings during smog season is to deal with sub-standard industrial operations. Although there is lack of data and research on pollution sources and their contribution to overall emissions, a recent FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization) study (2018) shows that 43 percent of total emission in Punjab is due to transport sector. The need is to take localized steps in polluted cities - like Lahore and Multan, to lower vehicle emission in winters.

Yes, shutting down sub-standard' industrial activities and improvement in brick kiln technology does reduce emissions-for example, AQL readings during Oct19-Mar20 were better than Oct20- Marc21, as efforts were made to temporarily close down steel and brick kilns during 2019-20. Last smog season, the government relaxed its policy to compensate businesses suffering due to COVID (in the preceding quarters). Plus, the boost in construction activities enhanced the demand of steel, bricks, and other products. Nonetheless, shutting down industries or merely improving standards of industries is not sufficient.

The data from limited studies by the World Bank and FAO in the region clearly suggests that vehicle emission is the biggest pollutant contributors. In this regard, Pakistan has moved forward to import petroleum products - petrol and diesel, on Euro-5 standards. Around 40 percent of diesel consumed is produced by local refineries- only one local refinery (NRL: 10% market share) is producing diesel on Euro-5 standards. The supply from south to north - up to Lahore, is through white oil pipeline. Unfortunately, local diesel (ranging from Euro-1 to Euro-5 standards) is mixed with imported Euro-5 to make the diesel for Lahore and Multan regions lower than Euro-5 standards. The logical solution is to ensure local refineries are upgrading. However, the refinery policy is in making for over a year. That policy is to ensure that only upgraded refineries survive. The ground situation is that age-old polluting refineries are working and producing environmentally substandard fuel.

The refineries' upgradations, if policy is finalized today, will take 4-5 years. And even after doing it, without having less vehicles on road and without altering vehicle exhaust emission standards, the improvements may not be optimal. If the vehicle exhaust standards to improve, the price of vehicle may go up. The automotive production and sales are largely tilted towards cheap and price sensitive 2/3 wheelers. According to PAMA (Pakistan Automotive Manufacturers Association) data, in the last 10 years, 88 percent of vehicles sold in Pakistan were 2/3 wheelers - 15.3 million motorbikes and rickshaws were sold in the last 10 years. Though these operate on petrol, their emission standards are poor, and there are no efforts to improve them. Then the goods' transportation is on diesel trucks and other vehicles where both fuel and exhaust standards are poor.

According to Lahore excise data, of 2018, 24 percent of vehicles on road were cars and they contributed 12 percent of PM2.5. The highest contributor was trucks - 0.8 percent of these vehicles contributed 29 percent PM2.5 emission. The second in line are motorbikes - 66 percent in number with emission contribution of 25 percent. The impact of auto rickshaws is astonishing - 3.4 percent of vehicles contributed 17 percent of pollutants emission. 2/3 wheelers combined have 42 percent of PM2.5 emission within vehicles. Thus, without improving vehicles emissions standards and bringing a policy of discouraging vehicles on road in polluted cities during winters, improving refining standards would have limited efficacy.

The problem is that there is no ownership by one department or government in improving air quality. Transportation and environmental departments within Punjab work in silos. Refining and oil products transportation is a federal subject - residing in ministry of energy. While fixing vehicle exhaust emission standards is the job of Engineering Development Board and federal ministry of industries. The efforts in silos by provincial environmental ministry are not enough. A centralized body to deal with all the aspects is missing.

Environmental Ministry is mainly concerned with reducing industrial activities, of which contribution is 25 percent in Punjab (as per FAO 2018 report) and 6 percent in Lahore (as per World Bank 2014 report). For big cities like Lahore, the efforts ought to be higher on solving the transportation puzzle. The second in line is biomass (15% emission contribution - WB 2014) - within it, is burning residential and other waste.

Then the blame is easily passed on to burning of rice on the Indian side of Punjab. This may not be a major contributor as winds in winters usually move from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal - like from Pakistani Punjab to Indian Punjab, not the other way round. Meanwhile, not much has been done to reduce the crop burning within Pakistan. There are solutions by having happy seeders to crush and reuse rice stubble, but the process is labour intensive and the market to sell stubble is missing. Thus, burning is easy and economical. The need is to create a market for rice stubble for farmers to invest in seeders and labour.

Nonetheless, in cities, the main contributor of emission remains vehicles. Here the political will seems to be missing in reducing vehicles on road. Within a city like Lahore, there should be an effective urban transportation system. Lahore has two transport lines working - green line metro bus and orange line train; two more lines are in the master plan. These should be expedited. Feeder buses network needs to be expanded. Meanwhile, development authorities like DHA Lahore -which is a city within a city- should allow public transport to run or invest in a system of its own.

These public transport systems should be complemented by having congestion tax on congested roads in peak hours. The government should install more air quality measuring monitors and assess the air quality at different times along with the type and number of vehicles on that road. Based on research on these data sets, pricing may be set to lower the emission. The peak hours are usually school times. There should be congestion tax in the morning and afternoon (school opening and closing times) within proximity of schools to encourage vehicle sharing. The government can also push private schools to have their own bus transport systems with enough safety and security features to provide comfort to parents for using it. The government should reduce the summer vacations to increase the time of winter vacations, as air quality generally worsens during winters. The civil society needs to contribute in order to improve their health and longevity.

Small other nudges are needed. The traffic load should be distributed based on air quality. For example, DHA allows trucks to unload construction material at night -after 11 PM. However, the problem with smog is higher when the temperature drops. The DHA can alter the timings - to allow trucks to come during non-peak day hours. The Punjab government should have a policy to phase out rickshaws from roads as their contribution to pollutant emissions is immense.

The point is that air quality is worsening, and long-term solutions take time and are expensive. The city management in Lahore and other urban centers in Punjab should be proactive in making effective solutions which could be implemented in short to medium terms. There is a need to check on the population growth of Lahore. For that, government should revisit its policies and do proper environmental studies for new developments like Ravi River Front and Walton Business district.

Poor air quality is a silent killer. It affects rich and poor in a similar way. It has no borders. Concentrated efforts are needed to address this mess - especially in Central and Sothern Punjab.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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Ali Khizar

Ali Khizar is the Head of Research at Business Recorder

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