Global Editions

Post-lockdown: environmental impact and where do we go next?
Economic inactivity has translated into clearer skies the world over, with rapid decrease in pollution
by Arooj Khalid

By May end, covid-19 had claimed over 350,000 lives and sent one-third of the world’s population into quarantine. This translated into a drastic hit to the economies with industrial manufacturing shutting down, businesses pausing operations, as well as road and air traffic with reduced operations.

The economic inactivity, however, actuated into clearer skies, days into the global lockdown, with rapid decrease in pollution the world over. This transformation in air quality was initially recorded by NASA satellites, with the improving air quality indexes observed globally. Reductions in noise, light, and water pollution were also witnessed.

China, responsible for over 50% of the carbon emissions in Asia, reported a decrease in its emissions by 25% over a four-week strict lockdown. In the United Kingdom, seismologists reported lower vibrations from cultural noise.

While the reduction in pollution also bode well for wildlife in many areas of the world, experts have warned not to be so quick to rejoice. For, these favorable outcomes have been achieved at the very high price of human lives and suffering, loss of employment opportunities, and food security.

Pakistan’s vulnerability

Pakistan does not contribute immensely to the emission of greenhouse gasses as compared to the rest of the world, but it is one of the countries most vulnerable to the consequences. Dr. Abrar Chaudhry, a research fellow at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, investigates climate change and sustainable development in developing countries and Pakistan. In his opinion, even though Pakistan is not a major contributor, the country still needs to take action in order to minimize the negative effects of the impact.

The country suffers from a number of environmental issues such as severe air pollution, groundwater pollution, floods, and melting of glaciers. There are consequences for agriculture that are caused by unchecked emissions from factories and out of date automobiles on the roads, pesticides, and other chemicals in agriculture, etc. Moreover, the ministries dedicated to minimizing the impact of these consequences lack precedence and have low technical ability and financial resources.


Lockdown effects

Over the years, Pakistan has witnessed extremely unhealthy air quality in its major cities, which are seasonally enveloped by smog.  The GHG emission of the transport sector in Pakistan has shown the highest growth rate in the past but during lockdowns, the density of traffic on the roads decreased by as much as 65% according to rough estimates.

The air quality index has decreased from extremely unhealthy levels of over 200 in major cities like Islamabad, Peshawar, and Karachi over the past year to below 100 in March 2020. In December 2019, Lahore’s AQI level was hazardous at 315, whereas, after a partial lockdown and decreased emission rate, it lowered to 51 in March 2020, which is considered good quality air causing little to no health risks. Decrease in pollution also brought healthcare relief for Pakistan during the pandemic, since unhealthy air quality can significantly worsen the symptoms of covid-19 patients.

According to the National GHG Inventory 2012, Pakistan’s energy sector accounts for 83% of the carbon dioxide emissions and nearly half of the country’s total greenhouse gasses (GHG) emissions, of which the transport sector accounts for at least a quarter.

Environmentalists point toward the temporary nature of the environmental effects that have been seen during the lockdown. They maintain that even if the lockdown extends and we see more improvements in air quality, they won’t last long. As soon as the lockdown ends, pollution levels might start increasing again.

According to Dr. Abrar Chaudhry, the decline in global emissions is not a structural change that will sustain itself. He underlines that the air quality has only improved temporarily because transportation is on pause and the factories are not operational. If these sectors start running like they were before the lockdown, the air quality will go back to the way it was within a short time.

“The only benefit lockdowns might reap is that the process of reaching a set limit of global temperature or GHGs present in the atmosphere will be slowed down, but the world will still get there,” he says while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.


Pakistan’s policies

Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change leads the country on the latest issues and solutions to climate change and environmental problems. The central policy that governs this process – National Climate Change Policy – was created in 2012 with the aim to revise it every five years. However, there have been little to no revisions so far.

Syed Abu Ahmad Akif, a former Secretary of the Ministry of Climate Change, says that the government has no intention of revising the 2012 policy “because any revision may open many Pandora’s boxes.”

The vulnerability of Pakistan’s environment has been a particular issue for some time finding home in policy documents over the past few years. While the documents cover several aspects, from water resources to forestry and natural disasters to biodiversity across the country, there is a considerable lag between the creation of these policies and their implementation.

According to the policy, provincial governments should form the Provincial Climate Change Policy Implementation Committees that will devise their own strategies to implement it and report to the National Climate Change Policy Implementation Committee. Pakistan Climate Change Act 2017 observed the formation of the Climate Change Authority, Climate Change Council, and a Climate Change Fund among other regulations. In 2019, the Ministry of Climate Change passed regulations to ban the use of polythene bags in the capital territory.

According to Dr. Naeem Shehzad, there is a need to strengthen and revise the laws regarding the environment and climate change in Pakistan. Abu Ahmad Akif also calls revising these policies, as they were created before the Paris Agreement between UNFCCC members and because they do not include the Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by members of the United Nations. Contrary to that, Dr. Chaudhry believes that Pakistan, with a dedicated federal ministry and a government that has climate change on its agenda, is a very progressive country.

“Pakistan, from a global and policy perspective, works above its share in the world. It’s not so much about the policy but about the implementation,” says Dr Chaudhry, adding that the policies need to be implemented at the grassroots levels.


Challenges in Implementation

Whether these policies are sufficient to deal with Pakistan’s environmental issues or not is secondary. The primary concern of most experts is that these policies are not properly implemented. Abu Ahmad Akif reiterates that the development of policies has become an end in itself for many government agencies. It becomes a responsibility shirking mechanism to deflect criticism away from the policymakers.

“We are lions when it comes to making policies; we really roar there. But then we shrink to being a house cat, just purring at the feet of our owners – foreign donors and international NGOs who seem to be driving our policies,” he believes.

Abu Ahmad Akif expresses his disappointment in the lack of implementation of policies and blames part of it on the bureaucratic system of the government “where a letter must move around within a department for the simplest of actions to take place.” He also says that few people have the authority in this system and they only use it when their personal benefit is involved.

Insufficient penalties

Dr. Shehzad describes another reason for the lack of implementation of environmental policies, saying that the penalties or fines imposed on the industries for creating massive amounts of pollution are insignificant to the owners of these industries.

He says that while provincial ministries were making efforts to control air pollution, they were not nearly enough. He recounts that a ministry official in Peshawar had told him that the fine for industrial emission of harmful gasses is Rs.1,000, which doesn’t hurt the owners of industries at all and they keep on emitting pollutants. Dr. Shehzad stresses that hefty fines be implemented so that the industry owners have to suffer significantly if they violate the environmental laws.

Carbon pricing is an effective method of imposing fines on industries. Used by several countries, it calculates a carbon tax based on the amount of carbon emission of a factory. In 2019, the Ministry of Climate Change published an extensive study with recommendations about different options and methods of implementation of Carbon Pricing in Pakistan, however, nothing of the sort has been implemented so far. Abu Ahmad Akif points out that the reason the current system benefits the industry owners is that they are part of the ruling classes and bureaucracy.

“While even the government’s mouth is not really in climate change, the budgetary allocation in the development budget (PSDP) should be analyzed beyond the 3.29 billion tree ‘tsunami’” he says adding that an increase in budget and distribution among different projects could benefit the country.

Technology and research

In 2016, member countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ratified the Paris Agreement, which is considered one of the milestones in finding solutions to climate change. According to this agreement, the global community would make collaborative efforts to keep the temperature of the Earth less than 2 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial temperature in this century. The agreement also aims to build the capacity of all countries to fight climate change by sharing financial resources, technological framework, and capacity-building.

Previously, a UNFCCC Cancun conference had agreed to set up a ‘Technology Mechanism’ that would allow the developed countries to provide aid to developing countries for the expansion and transfer of new technologies used to monitor and mitigate climate change. Abu Ahmad Akif believes that the developed world has not kept this promise.

He says developing countries like Pakistan do not have the financial resources to spend freely on climate change issues. If the developed countries don’t pay up, it will harm them just as much as the developing world.

Environmental experts also direct attention toward the lack of technology available in Pakistan, estimating that the reason might be the high cost of equipment required to measure and generate data. Even the technology that is already present in Pakistan is not fully used.

Taking the example of water pollution in Pakistan, Dr. Shehzad explains that liquid discharge coming from factories has many pollutants in it, and instead of letting it flow into drains, it should be properly treated and disposed of. For this purpose, treatment plants are required which industries can set up and use to follow the minimum requirements for the disposal of pollutants and chemicals. Environmental Protection agencies in Pakistan are regularly urged to ensure the implementation of these laws.


Other resources and awareness

Lack of appropriate resources for climate change monitoring is a major stumbling block in Pakistan. The ministry is aware of its limitations, officially stating that “Pakistan is hardly prepared to meet the 21st century’s biggest challenge of climate change as far as human resources and institutional capacities are concerned.”

Not only does Pakistan lack climate-competent scientists and technologists, there is also a lack of institutions to practice environmental science, modeling, management, adaptation, mitigation, and policy issues in Pakistan. The country’s policies routinely state that these resources are an important concern for the government, however, little advancement is observed in the field.

Experts also point towards the lack of awareness on issues related to the environment among the masses. They believe that if the general public realizes how dangerous these pollutants are, there will be an automatic surge in accountability and implementation.

Abu Ahmad Akif says that in other countries, it is the citizens who are concerned about the environment and force the government to do something about it. He also says that most of the political leaders are rich and well placed enough to avoid a global warming crisis so, “until climate change becomes an election issue political actors are not interested or moved.”


Dr. Chaudhry believes that if we think about going back, after the lockdown, to exactly the way we were operating before, there will be a small lag that will be overcome by the industry in sufficient time and everything will return to “normal”. However, this time we have the opportunity to ask “should we be going back to normal?”

The lockdown has shown us that there are many things we can do remotely. “Is our commute really necessary? Do we still need the system where everyone wakes up, sits in their cars, and goes to offices?” Dr Chaudhry asks.

With the few weeks under lockdown having cleared up a number of pollutants from our environment, many reiterate that the use of renewable energy instead of fossil fuels could easily transform our surroundings for the better.

Even though Pakistan itself is not a major emitter of the GHGs and needs to focus more on facing the consequences rather than their production, it’s still viable for the country to develop environmentally friendly mechanisms for its industries and the lifestyle of its citizens. These processes will only make us more efficient and aid us in the future when environmentally-friendly technology is a pressing priority.

However, the economic repercussions cannot be ignored, and employees of the impacted industries cannot be abandoned. Therefore, sustainable solutions are needed keeping all consequences in mind.

Arooj Khalid is a journalist based in Lahore