Talking Air Pollution in Pakistan during COVID-19 with Dawar Butt

In our first livestream podcast, we speak with Dawar Hameed Butt, a public policy, health and sustainability consultant based in Lahore, about the blue skies during lockdown. Dawar goes by @theLahorewala on Twitter, where he has become a key persona for all things climate change, environment and air pollution. He also is one of the organizers of the nationwide Climate Strikes across Pakistan. We speak about his journey into the world of air pollution, and take an in-depth look at emissions levels before and during lockdown.

Together with Sunil Dahiya of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), their analysis found that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions saw a drop of 49% in Lahore, 35% in Karachi and 56% in the Twin Cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the corresponding period during lockdown.

“NO2 is a dangerous pollutant, responsible for an estimated 120,000 new cases of child asthma and 4,000 premature deaths per year in Pakistan. It is also a key contributor to PM2.5 formation.”

“NO2 primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel and mainly formed by emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment. Most of these activities being absent/reduced due to nationwide lockdown, the emissions have gone down drastically.”

Even with blue skies, air pollution remains above safe limits

When you look at heatmaps like these from the layman’s perspective, you immediately see that there is no longer a hotspot over Lahore or over Sheikupura, and everything looks nice and blue. However, what is hiding behind this first glance is that that NO2 emission levels are still above safe limits.

Why haven’t air pollution levels come down even more drastically? Similar to what happened in Beijing and Wuhan during lockdown, certain essential services such as power generation and food industries remain in operation. In some cases, industrial furnaces such as those at steel mills cannot be shutdown, for example the Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi has kept its furnaces running since decades even when not in production.

The good news is that we now have a baseline emission level that we can target to achieve.

How do we protect ourselves from COVID-19?

Besides social distancing, the most important measure that one can take to protect themselves from COVID-19 is to wear a mask. New research from Harvard University and others show that a small increase in air pollution can make the coronavirus more deadly. Cornovirus can essentially piggy back on airborne particulate matter and aerosols, which makes us in Pakistan at higher risk. We already have a compromised respiratory system from elevated pollution levels, that is not going to withstand for long against the full onset of the virus.

In the podcast, we discuss why masks are important, and why certifiable N95 or surgical masks are difficult to manufacture in Pakistan in spite of the massive textile industry.

Listen to the whole thing for more, and leave us your comments! Help us find more guests!

Recommendations

  1. Read the complete analysis by CREA on Air Quality before and after national lockdown during Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak across Pakistan by Sunil Dahiya and Dawar Butt.
  2. Utilize your free time during the lockdown and learn about The Health Effects of Climate Change with this free online course by Harvard University.
  3. Jaan Bachao and make a mask with Mask Banao, a student initiative from Lahore. Support them and follow their efforts.
  4. Visit #WearAF—ingMask and learn why wearing a mask is so important to flatten the curve, as well as protecting your own health.
  5. Listen to the Tabadlab’s Pakistonomy podcast with energy economist Ammar H. Khan on Pakistan’s highly polluting energy sector, and why it is organized the way it is.