Why does the air quality in New Delhi and Lahore ranks among the world's worst at this time of the year? The answer to this oft-repeated question can be found in the satellite maps constantly updated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Indian government recently estimated that 36% of pollution was contributed by farm fires. Here's how NASA Earth Observatory explains it: "The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."
|Farm Fires Seen By NASA Satellite. Source: FIRMS|
The latest image downloaded from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Information System (FIRMS) show farm fires burning in both India and Pakistan. These fires are particularly intense in Indian and Pakistani provinces of the Punjab. These fires contribute significantly to the high level of particulates in Delhi and Lahore. Indian government recently estimated that 36% of the PM2.5 particulate matter was contributed by stubble burning by farmers.
South Asia's Vulnerability:
South Asia is particularly susceptible to pollutants that hang in the air for extended periods of time. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite images show dull gray haze hovering over northern India and Pakistan, and parts of Bangladesh. It is believed that emissions from solid fuel burning, industrial pollutants and farm clearing fires get trapped along the southern edge of the Himalayas. NASA Earth Observatory explains this phenomenon as follows:
"The haze visible in this image likely results from a combination of agricultural fires, urban and industrial pollution, and a regional temperature inversion. Most of the time, air higher in the atmosphere is cooler than air near the planet’s surface, and this configuration allows warm air to rise from the ground and disperse pollutants. In the wintertime, however, cold air frequently settles over northern India, trapping warmer air underneath. The temperature inversion traps pollutants along with warm air at the surface, contributing to the buildup of haze."
|Trapped Smog. Source: Al Jazeera|
Urgent Actions Needed:
South Asian governments need to act to deal with rapidly rising particulate pollution jointly. Some of the steps they need to take are as follows:
1. Crack down on stubble burning to clear fields. Incentivize use of machine removal of stubble.
2. Reduce the use of solid fuels such as cow dung, wood and coal to limit particulate matter released into the atmosphere.
3. Impose higher emission standards on industries and vehicles through regulations.
4. Incentivize transition to electric vehicles.
5. Increase forest cover by planting more trees.
6. Encourage the use of more renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, nuclear etc.
The cost of acting now may seem high but it will turn out to be a lot more expensive to deal with extraordinary disease burdens resulting from rising air pollution.
Pakistan at COP26:
Malik Amin Aslam, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's special assistant on climate change, said recently in an interview with CNN that his country is seeking to change its energy mix to favor green. He said Pakistan's 60% renewable energy target would to be based on solar, wind and hydro power projects, and 40% would come from hydrocarbon and nuclear which is also low-carbon. “Nuclear power has to be part of the country’s energy mix for the future as a zero energy emission source for a clean and green future,” he concluded. Here are the key points Aslam made to Becky Anderson of CNN:
1. Pakistan wants to be a part of the solution even though it accounts for less than 1% of global carbon emissions.
Movement of pollutants does not recognize national borders. It has severe consequences for both India and Pakistan. The only way to deal with it is for the two nations to cooperate to minimize this problem.
South Asia accounts for more than a third of all PM2.5 pollution related deaths in the world. The sources of particulate pollution range from solid fuel burning to crop clearing fires and use of dirty fuels in vehicles and industries. Recognition of the growing problem is urgent. Failure to act could be very costly in terms of impact on human health and economy. Pakistan needs to follow through on its commitments made at COP26 conference recently held in Glasgow, Scotland.
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