Learning from Lahore

Sometimes beginning late can be an opportunity – more advantageous then even the beginners’ advantage. If a city has done nothing so far to clean up, and begins now, it is easier to steer clear of the gaffes and the clangers of the early birds. Avoid the sheer burden of false moves of the past. Begin right. Lahore, one of the most happening metros in Pakistan, is poised to do just that. A group of determined legal practitioners, who are also represented on the Lahore Clean Air Commission set up by the Lahore High Court, is expected to give a charter of solutions to cut vehicular pollution to the Court soon. The only risk to the progressive initiative is the reluctance of the global carmakers to commit to cleaner targets anytime soon.

While spending this weekend with the resolute clean air group in Lahore, the enormity of their daunting challenge stunned me. Scant data signals a public health disaster in the city of seven million, already in the grip of chaotic urban growth. Three heavy traffic intersections, monitored by Pakistan Environment Protection Agency in Lahore in 2002, show alarmingly high levels of PM10, – five to ten times the standards of most developed countries. A 2004

World Bank study says if PM2.5 is taken as half of or less of PM10 recorded, even that would be very high by any standard.

Even before the city could figure out the relative gravity of different pollution sources, rapidly growing vehicle numbers overpower the city. Lahore adds 10,000 vehicles every month to its already more than a million strong fleet. City officials despair that the growth rate in vehicle registrations has swelled from 9.76 per cent in 2002 to 14.3 per cent by 2004 – even higher than Delhi’s growth rate – and is expected to climb further. Business is brisk for the global carmakers in the city.

It is so clichéd and obvious to hold that the countries of South Asia hardly have the wherewithal to set effective mass emissions standards to influence technology choices. Yes, they don’t. A few countries have just begun to set the basic legal limits for emissions. Only India began early in 1991, but quickly lost the momentum and wasted 15 years to enforce Euro II standards countrywide in 2005. Nepal is even further constrained as it depends on India to get the fuels that decide the fate of its technology trajectory. Inert regulations. Booming car business. The ‘law-abiding’ car industry is happy that it meets the law of the land.

Only that pollution laws are too weak to define corporate accountability. Take Lahore, for instance. The city has not begun customary routine monitoring of air quality. It has no air quality standards. It does not require its cars to meet any emissions standards. Nor does it inspect emissions from in-use vehicles. While limited air quality data spells crisis, the lack of health data breeds uncertainty – typical of many cities in the sub continent. It is a windfall for car companies to peddle Euro 0 cars, with the leasing companies and banks backing them up with easy finances. Making gross profits even more gross.

Today the angst of the Lahore citizenry is not about the current Euro 0 status of the technology. They anguish over the manner in which the auto industry is blocking the process of producing anything cleaner soon. It is shocking that the global giants selling cars in Lahore, mainly Japanese, who are otherwise setting the technology agenda globally, are negotiating with the Clean Air Commission to push back the date for meeting Euro II standards to 2008 – three years from now – and 12 years after Europe. Incredibly, the bus industry has instead committed to meeting Euro II standards in 2006 for both diesel and CNG. If buses can comply with the new standards, the commission is confident that the matching fuels will follow.

The car manufacturers get away with it as they do in the rest of the sub-continent, because there is barely any information to call their bluff off. Remember the Supreme Court of India order of April 29, 1999 concerning Delhi? It still haunts the Indian car industry. Setting aside the deluge of objections from the industry, the Court had ordered all cars to meet Euro I norms by June 1, 1999 within two months, and Euro II norms by April 1, 2000, in nine months in Delhi. And the industry did it. In a complete volte-face, the Indian car industry then admitted its ability to produce even Euro IV compliant cars by 2006!

Asia is in the throes of dramatic transformation. There’s no reason why any city in the region should lag behind the Asian average. The year 2005-06 is a very critical threshold in Asia with almost all Asian majors, including China, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Philippines, enforcing Euro II as the minimum standards. Some countries are finding ways to quickly hop over to either Euro III or Euro IV standards. The global carmakers that dominate the region’s markets surely have the capacity to produce cleaner technologies than required by lax emissions limits and regulations of many South Asian countries.

It is in this context that the role of voluntary agreements with the car industry assumes such significance, as is being tried out so innovatively in Lahore. The Lahore Clean Air Commission has made impressive efforts to draw up an action plan. For each action proposed, it has negotiated with all stakeholders to get voluntary commitments and deadlines. From standards for emissions, fuels and ambient air quality, to air quality monitoring, implementing vehicle inspections, better public transport and transport planning, in addition to fiscal incentives and expansion of the city’s CNG programme, -- the Commission covers a wide array of actions.

Regrettably, the only key action being contested is the deadline for Euro II standards for cars – the fastest growing pollution source in the city. If car makers had participated more meaningfully, it could have influenced the trajectory of change in Lahore more radically.

Throughout South Asia, the auto makers’ and oil refiners’ constant resistance to improve conventional diesel and petrol technologies is frustrating. Which explains why the regulators and clean air advocates are excited about the alternative fuels. It happened in Delhi. It will happen in Lahore. Lahore is looking at the CNG programme more enthusiastically today. Both three-wheelers and buses will begin the transition to CNG soon.

This is so logical for Pakistan, which has already reversed its energy matrix – the only one to do so in Asia. According to its Hydrocarbon Development Institute, natural gas supplies have exceeded oil supplies since 2001, with natural gas comprising more than half, or 57.8 per cent, of the total energy consumption in the country. Perched on a natural gas reserve of 45.3 trillion cubic feet versus only 801 million barrels of oil, the country already has an impressive natural gas pipeline network to support different sectors of its economy. To double the advantage of energy security with emissions gains, CNG use in the transport sector is now expected to expand dramatically. The immediate rush is to target diesel consumption, which in the transport sector still accounts for 76.63 per cent of the energy consumption.

Unlike our central environmental regulators who are still so apologetic about Delhi’s CNG programme and rue about having done something so grand by default, the regulators across the border are refreshingly proactive. The Punjab government in Pakistan has set aside a part of the Rs 1 billion green programme to finance CNG three-wheelers and CNG buses. This will completely change Lahore’s transport technology market.

Who cares if the global carmakers delay Euro II standards? For Lahore, with 98 CNG dispensing stations and 25 more in the pipeline, the right regulatory approach and fiscal measures can simply chase out the polluting fuels and cars from the city.

Lahore is at the threshold of exciting changes. Progressive lawyers, together with a city government willing to listen, can make Lahore leap away from the pollution disaster threatening to choke the sub-continent.

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign