This introductory post explores the state of Lahore’s air pollution crisis, which is analysed in detail in the following blog piece.
Winters in Lahore were once eagerly anticipated by its citizens, who finally were able to escape from the scorching heat of its semi-arid climate. But a time that was once seen as a blessing, is now fearfully awaited. Lahoris now brace themselves for what is now widely acknowledged as the city’s ‘fifth season’ (Zahra-Malik, 2017). Since 2014, the start of winter is marked by a thick and toxic smog that descends onto the city; choking and blinding it’s residents. The levels of PM2.5, which are the air particulates that are able to penetrate through the lungs and can cause respiratory diseases, exceed the national legal limits (EPD, 2016) by twenty to thirty fold; posing not only as a risk to public health, but also as an extreme environmental challenge for the city.
Understandably, Lahore has persistently struggled with poor air quality for decades as it dealt with the pressures that any rapidly urbanising city would in the Global South. As the city developed, the air pollution worsened- and Lahore earnt its rank as one of the most polluted cities in the world (Adnan, 2019). Throughout the year, a slight haze does shroud the cityscape, but the air quality becomes especially hazardous in the winters when it interacts with changing weather conditions. When emissions produced in and around the city collide with an inversion cloud, it is trapped within the airshed instead of being able to rise through the atmosphere and dissipate as it would in normal conditions (Figure 1). The smog can then linger for weeks, only receding when the January rains pulls the pollutants to the ground or when the winds blows away the inversion cloud.
According to the R-Smog Report (FAO, 2018), 80% of the air pollution in Lahore comes from the power, industrial and transport sectors. However, the Environment Protection Department (EPD) has continually insisted that seasonal crop burning in India- only 20km away from Lahore- is the key factor. Experts have indeed disproven the EPD’s claims, but the conflict between what scientists have observed and what public officials claim highlights a much deeper problem of how the city’s smog is presented.
The solutions to the annual smog are large-scale and costly, including improving fuel quality and emission standards for vehicles, as well as minimising coal-fired emissions. All these measures requires political will, but by externalising the problem, the government can evade their responsibility in implementing these. Blaming India therefore becomes an easy way out- it fuels jingoistic attitudes that are already present and distracts people from the root cause; at the heart of which is the national government’s own shortcomings in tackling polluters in fear of compromising economic growth. For example, pausing brick kiln operations in the lead up to smog season would on one hand help reduce air pollution levels, but on the other hand, is economically and politically unfeasible as it would put thousands of low-wage employees out of work. It is this “pollution versus poverty” (Shahid, 2019) binary that essentially underpins the lack of government action, and suggests the need for innovative and technological approaches. In the case of brick kilns, if the government provided subsidies on ‘zigzag technology’ conversion- a much more efficient brick production method that reduces carbon emissions between 40-60%- it could present a win-win solution both from an economic and environmental standpoint. But until strategies like this are not introduced, Lahore will continue to suffer.
As Pakistan is the 5th most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change (Germanwatch, 2020), it would mean that inevitably, Lahore’s smog situation will progressively worsen with each passing year. Although attempting to reverse the decades of damage that has been done is a long-term process, there is some hope that Lahore is moving in the right direction. With growing climate activism, citizens are now placing increasing pressures on the government to take the smog issue more seriously. In 2019, thousands of young Lahoris took to the street to demand urgent action from the government. This was a huge turning point for the city, as it was the first ever Climate March that took place on such a large scale. But unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.
So in the weeks leading up to winter; with the days getting shorter and the temperature cooler, Lahoris take in their last breaths of air, because before they know it…Winter is Here.
Adnan, I. (2019) ’Lahore ranked world’s most polluted city’ The Express Tribune, November 22nd, https://tribune.com.pk/story/2104154/1-lahore-ranked-worlds-polluted-city
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2018) ‘Remote sensing for spatio-temporal mapping of smog in Punjab and identification of the underlying causes using GIS techniques’ (R- SMOG). http://www.gcisc.org.pk/R-SMOG-Report.pdf
GermanWatch (2020) GLOBAL CLIMATE RISK INDEX 2020 https://germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/20-2-01e%20Global%20Climate%20Risk%20Index%202020_10.pdf
Government of the Punjab Environmental Protection Department (2016) ‘Notification 122’ https://epd.punjab.gov.pk/system/files/Punjab%20Environmental%20Quality%20Standards%20for%20Ambient%20Air.pdf
Shahid, K.K., (2019) ‘Lahore’s Annual Smogfest’, The Diplomat, November 29th https://thediplomat.com/2019/11/lahores-annual-smogfest/
Zahra-Malik, M. (2017) ‘In Lahore, Pakistan, Smog Has Become a ‘Fifth Season’, New York Times, November 10th https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/world/asia/lahore-smog-pakistan.html NYT 2017