THE density of the fog that has been blanketing parts of Pakistan for some years now has been steadily increasing. Steps urgently need to be taken to mitigate its effects.
Many mistakenly think that the fog that has become the norm during the winters is the natural outcome of falling temperatures and relative humidity. However, fog created in this manner is localised and vanishes as the temperature rises.
The persistence and intensity of the haze currently enveloping parts of the country is actually the effect of the deeper problem of air pollution. While automobile exhaust, the burning of dried leaves and other polluting activities are contributors, the single biggest factor is the use of coal for the generation of electricity in thermal power plants.
In terms of air pollution, South Asia is amongst the most badly affected areas in the world. Unchecked industrial activity that uses fuels that endanger the environment has brought about severe changes in climate, including fog.
Regions that don’t have such polluting industries are not spared either: the levels of gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter have been increasing with pollutants being carried by the wind for thousands of miles. Consequently, pollution is an issue not just for the country that produces it but for other states as well.
The phenomenon of persisting fog during December and January has been increasing in Pakistan over the past 15 years. Its range also includes the Indo-Gangetic plain that stretches from Peshawar to Kolkata and beyond. The single largest contributor to air pollution in South Asia is coal-run thermal power generation.
The consumption of coal in South Asia during 2012 was around 685 million tons in total, out of which 98pc was used in India; the majority of this coal was consumed by the power sector. The share of electricity generated using coal as fuel in India is 71pc, 3.2pc in Bangladesh and 0.1pc in Pakistan. A report by the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bangalore reveals that the quality of Indian coal is very poor, with 35-45pc ash content and low heating value. Thus, the generation of one unit of electricity emits one kilo of carbon dioxide; annually, almost 200 million tons of ash are generated by the use of coal in the power sector.
Energy is vital for growth in India and consequently, the fog that envelopes Pakistan over the winter months has kept pace with its generation and grown thicker. Indian reports on the energy statistics of 2013 say that today India is the ninth largest economy in the world driven by a real GDP growth of 8.7pc. This has placed enormous demand on its energy resources.
The demand and supply imbalance in energy is pervasive and requires serious efforts by the government of India to augment energy supplies. The country faces possibly severe energy-supply constraints. Nevertheless, India is violating transnational environmental laws by creating negative externalities for the countries it shares borders with.
Indian scientists concede that coal-based thermal power plants are major air pollutants, including small particle pollutants — the aerosol.
Recent studies using satellite modelling show a significant increase in aerosols in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Several reports also conclude that the coal supplied to power plants is of the worst quality. This factor, coupled with the low efficiency, results in more pollution. The emission of other, more hazardous gases, fly ash and suspended particulate are responsible for aggravating the greenhouse effect.
Pakistan is suffering from dire changes in its climate. Many projects have been envisaged and some even pursued for remedying global warming, but the lack of clearly identified goals and effective strategies have resulted in zero gains.
Like the fog that envelopes much of Pakistan, these efforts have been draped in a shroud of failed promises and never accomplished aims. Climate change has evolved into an industry in the country but the only effort is in terms of getting funding. Ensuring the implementation of practical measures is hardly on the agenda of any non-governmental organisation working in the climate change sector in Pakistan.
While I appreciate the efforts of the present government for increasing cooperation with India, there is a need to augment these by taking steps to prevent environmental degradation. Pakistan needs to follow the model of the Asean agreement to come up with a ‘Transboundary Haze Pollution’ model in South Asia. At the same time, other countries including Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, have to find the courage to ask India to replace its coal-power plants.
The writer is adviser, water and energy, at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad