Can the Clean Air Plan clean up Pakistan's air quality?

During a memorable TED Talk, noted air quality advocate Abid Omar warned that Lahore, Pakistan’s air is so polluted that residents don’t see blue skies and can’t view the Ravi River (1).

Since that talk, Pakistan has enacted a Clean Air Plan. The plan is intended to address the country’s persistent and severe air pollution.

What causes air pollution in Pakistan?

Pakistan was the third most polluted country in the world in 2022.

Pakistan’s poor air quality comes from many sources, including from vehicle emissions, smoke from brick kilns, and the seasonal practice of burning crop stubble.

Pakistan’s poor air quality comes from many sources, including vehicle emissions, smoke from brick kilns, and the seasonal practice of burning crop stubble. Crop burning smoke can severely impact visibility and breathable air in the country’s northern cities between October and February. House and forest fires also contributed to the country’s poor air quality in 2022.

Smoke and vehicle emissions pollutant components include PM2.5, or particulate material measuring equal or less than 2.5 microns in diameter. PM2.5 can lead to cardiac and respiratory diseases.

Unhealthy air quality in Lahore, Pakistan

Unhealthy air quality in Lahore, Pakistan on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Source: IQAir.

Lahore was burdened with the worst air pollution in the world in 2022.

The country’s major cities, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar, struggle with poor air quality year-round. Lahore endured the worst air pollution in the world in 2022, with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 97 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3). Peshawar’s annual average PM2.5 concentration of 92 μg/m3, making it the fifth most polluted city.

Those annual average PM2.5 concentrations for Lahore and Peshawar were 19 and 16 times greater, respectively, than the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 concentration of 5 μg/m3 or less.

In response to these extreme air quality conditions, Pakistan’s Ministry of the Environment sought legislative support to help mitigate pollution in the country.

Historically, other nations have turned to clean air legislation after devastating air quality events – and the results have been transformational.

How killer smog sparked clean air action in major cities

One of the most notorious air quality events occurred in London in 1952. At that time, Londoners were used to persistent smog, a condition caused by a mix of fog and household coal burning. However, from December 5 to 9, 1952, severe air pollution settled over the city and killed an estimated 4,000 people as a direct result of the fog (2). An additional 8,000 people died in later months. Deemed the “Great Smog of London,” it roused the Parliament of the United Kingdom to enact the country’s Clean Air Act of 1956.

The United States endured a similar tragedy a few years earlier. The 1948 Donora smog in Donora, Pennsylvania killed 20 people and caused respiratory problems for 5,900 people, sparking national headlines and air pollution discussions (3)(4). Additionally, other major American cities like Los Angeles have endured severe smog for decades.

The United States passed clean air legislation in 1955, but it would take significant major revisions in 1970, 1977, and 1990 to strengthen federal control over pollutants (5).

While London and Los Angeles still suffer from significant air pollution, smog frequency and intensity in those cities doesn’t rival the extremes of previous decades and generations, thanks in part to enforced legislation over the years. Meanwhile, hundreds of global cities like Lahore went without a single month of good of air quality in 2022.

And even though strong anti-pollution laws have been proven to help save lives, only one in three countries legally mandated outdoor air quality standards as of 2021 (6).

What is being done to control air pollution in Pakistan?

The World Bank estimates that poor outdoor air quality already causes 22,000 premature adult Pakistani deaths per year (7). Severe air pollution has forced the country to have a conversation on immediately strengthening air pollution laws. It’s also motivated individuals like Abid and resulting court decisions that have stirred Pakistani officials to action.

In 2017, historical data from Abid’s air quality monitoring network was provided as supplementary evidence during a debate before the Chief Justice of Lahore’s High Court. The High Court has since ruled for more robust government action and declared environmental emergencies related to poor air quality on several occasions (8) (9) (10).

Pakistan announced a revised Pakistan Clean Air Plan (PCAP) in June, 2021. The PCAP is assessing both local and national air pollution, which has led to the creation of the country’s first national air pollutant inventory. The inventory quantifies black carbon and other airborne pollutants at the national and provincial levels (11).

The ongoing PCAP includes a National Clean Air Plan with three goals:

  • determine air pollution concentration targets
  • identify effective strategies for mitigating air pollution
  • develop a coordinating air quality improvement action plan

The plan, under development by Pakistan’s Ministry of the Environment and supported by Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and Clean Air Asia, will also address stopping waste and agricultural burning, regulating industry emissions, and converting wood stoves and biomass cooking for greater fuel-efficiency, and moving towards cleaner fuel vehicle standards.

The takeaway

The Pakistan Clean Air Plan is a positive step toward improving the country’s air pollution—and protecting the population from its harmful effects.

Air quality activists like Abid Omar can continue to help motivate and inform action, and more and more people are learning how they can join the movement and become air quality data contributors. Air quality monitoring data is a vital tool for reducing pollutants because what gets documented gets done – when invisible pollutants are made visible through data sharing, they get eliminated.

Knowing the real-time concentrations of pollution in the air educates people so they know when the air is dangerous, helps them respond to air quality events, and informs policy makers in the fight for clean air.

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