Pakistan is high on the climate vulnerability index, and competes for the top slot with India for the worst air quality index. While climate change can be attributed to global actions, there is no such excuse for explaining the recurring nightmare of smog that envelops cities like Lahore and Karachi every year. This environmental disaster that pumps toxic air into the lungs of its citizens is taking a toll on public health, the economy, overall productivity, and causing damage to the ecosystem, as well as compromising the future of the next generation and their quality of life and longevity.

The paralysis of each successive government in the face of this mounting threat and an inability to take decisive long-term action, can only be seen as negligence at best and apathy at worst to the wellbeing of the country’s citizens.

The causes of smog are well-known. Vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, fossil fuel-fired power stations, waste burning and brick kiln run on coal are spread over vast areas spewing toxins in the air. The most undesirable components are nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone smoke and other particulates. Trucks and automobiles are responsible for about half of all nitrogen oxide emissions, with electric power plants and other industrial sources contributing most of the ozone at ground level.

The Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and 10 are the most harmful pollutants. With a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometers, PM 2.5 is dangerous due to its very fine nature and ability to directly penetrate the bloodstream, causing a host of respiratory problems. PM10 is dangerous because it contains carcinogenic heavy metals and increases risk of myocardial infarction and stroke.

A global review of policies and programs to improve air quality shows that over the last few years more countries have adopted policies on all major polluting sectors. Pakistan also launched its National Clean Air Policy (NCAP) in 2023. However large gaps in implementation, financing, capacity and monitoring mean that air pollution levels remain high. This year the smog season started as early as the end of October, forcing the government of Punjab to take strict measures restricting mobility, and reducing the number of days for businesses activity. However, the absence of any noticeable improvement in air quality suggests that despite executive orders, implementation is weak.

The issue of smog and its causes are hazardous challenges that can no longer be ignored. Widespread air pollution can best be addressed by taking an airshed approach for a sustainable solution. Delineation of an airshed has three basic steps: first, emission quantification to prepare a multi-pollutant emission inventory; second, analysis of meteorological data to evaluate variations and similarities at the local and regional levels; and third, performing air quality modeling to understand the pollution. This requires clubbing areas with similar geographic, topographic and meteorological conditions together to regulate pollution. This can be done at the country as well as the transboundary level. The process may be long in achieving long-term goals. However, combining it with the short-term measures of restricting mobility, imposing strict smog check on vehicles, making Euro V fuels more widely available, investing in green mass transit, and incentivizing car- pooling can help in reducing levels of pollution. The COVID period with all its other negatives demonstrated that achieving clean air quality is possible. While keeping the air clean and free of harmful pollutants is the responsibility of the state, the citizens too must recognize their role and contribute in improving their own quality of life. Pakistan faces challenges at multiple levels because citizens do not own agendas. The common trend is to blame and ascribe responsibility to a third party. The social contract between the state and the citizens of an unwritten alliance is missing, making it difficult to get buy-in for policies and working together for a common cause. One part of the problem is trust-deficit and the other is unwillingness to take collective responsibility.

Air quality and smog are two issues that grab headlines for a few months in the year. The media leaps into action on reporting, the government announces ad hoc measures, viral tweets online are ablaze with images of smoke, and complaints about health hazards, and the inconveniences related to mobility witness a spike. With the onset of spring, the matter is put to rest for the remaining year, only to be resurrected in November with the same set of complaints.

Another glaring factor in this growing annual crisis is the unsustainable growth in the size of our polluted cities. Lahore had a population of approximately 3 million in 1980 with 70,000 motor vehicles and 33,000 motorbikes. In 2023 the population has grown by four times and is now bursting at the seams with 14 million people, 6.2 million vehicles and 4.2 million motor bikes. Smog checks are not done for vehicles and despite an announcement by the federal government of switching to Euro V, the higher quality fuel is only available at limited petrol stations. If population and vehicles keep growing at this rate, the scale of the problem will increase exponentially, making Lahore a hazardous city to live in.

Smog in mega cities is flagged as an issue because it affects urban life and mobility but there is another air pollutant that is short in residency but 12 times faster-acting in accelerating melting of glaciers. Black carbon is silently damaging the health of people and ecosystems of mountain communities with no voices raised to address this threat.

With elections coming up soon, environmental issues offer citizens the perfect opportunity to demand the right to breathe clean air. Making local issues a priority and demanding accountable and transparent governance is the responsibility of every adult citizen. There is ample evidence to show that political will is dictated by voter demand. Persistent demands for improving service delivery and using performance- based outcomes in choosing public representatives can go a long way in improving governance and getting quality service delivery.

The smog issue has already shortened the average life span by seven years. Without remedial action every passing year will worsen matters making every breath we take akin to slow poisoning, silently damaging organs, leading to serious health issues and early demise. The government urgently needs to make a five-year plan to set air quality standards that it wants to achieve in this period. Making a GHG inventory for source apportionment is the first step in this direction.

As environmental pollutants contribute to global warming, improving air quality can also be converted into bankable projects to access external finance and get assistance for technology and building capacity. The first five-year plan can be used with lessons learned for scaling up with more ambitious targets.

The citizen-centric approach will however remain a central pillar in overcoming this hazard. The government must immediately develop a communication strategy that delivers this message to the people and engages with them as partners in implementation.

Unfortunately, most of what we say and do has a short shelf life. With climate threats and growing economic challenges, issues like air pollution that get short term media hype are easy to relegate to the sidelines. Right now, breathing toxic air may not seem like an issue that demands urgency in action but this is something for which we will have to pay a heavy social, economic and environmental cost in the not too distant future.

Aside from climate change, air pollution is the most urgent problem that we face as a society. Solving it requires broad research, planning and cooperation.

It is time to act before it's too late and work on the environment and climate change simultaneously as both pose a serious threat to human security and ecosystem integrity.

Aisha Khan is the Chief Executive of Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC), and can be reached at [email protected].

woman avatar