We are not contributors toward air pollution but rather its victims. Most of the smog you see here is coming from India”, indubitably postulates our Punjab Environment Protection Agency (PEPA) official. The hilarity that is this statement is beyond comprehensible. The ease with which officials play on the ‘Indian conspiracy’ and toy with society’s emotions is astounding. Our officials mindlessly and without caution tap into baseless argumentation, without fail. Yet these laughable individuals are our representatives, and we allow them to exploit their positions. What is even more unnerving, however, is that the so called ‘educated’ civilians buy into these theories. As a nation, collectively, it has never been hard for us to brush aside any issue and blame it on India.

Smog is air pollution; a blend of smoke and fog. However, at 21 degrees Celsius in Lahore, fog is NOT in the mix – this current blanket is purely smoke and sulphur dioxide. We call this photochemical smog i.e the chemical reaction of sunlight, nitrogen oxides and ozone that creates this haze. The chemicals that are currently burning your eyes and itching your throat include aldehydes, nitrogen oxides, particularly nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, peroxyacyl nitrates, tropospheric ozone and volatile organic compounds. The cooling temperature makes the air heavy, and locks these chemicals at the ground level - it is not smog, it is smoke.

Contributors include, mass traffic, rubbish incineration, expansive urban development and fossil fuel burning. Lahore is the second largest industrial city in all of Pakistan. It has both small and large industries – those within its boundaries and those just outside. When the last census was conducted in 1998, it was home to 5.143 million people. In the 18 years since, and with a 1.49% per annum population growth rate according to U.N estimates, Lahore has become the second largest and second most populous city in Pakistan. It is the 32nd most populous city in the world.

Lahore is slowly becoming home to millions more through unprecedented rural-urban migration. 54% of the world’s population currently resides within urban cities, and this will continue to expand to approximately 66% by 2050. To put this into perspective, the world population will be nigh on 9 billion by 2050 as projected by UN statistics. Not only is this putting a strain on cities themselves, but it is making those within them all the more vulnerable.

The buildings that we reside in globally, collectively contribute to 45% of greenhouse gas emissions merely through cooling, heating and powering. 54% of the electricity in Pakistan is contributed by fossil fuel burning. Global warming has attributed to sky rocketing temperatures in Pakistan, leading to excessive use of air conditioning and (because of faithful load shedding) generators. With no garbage disposal or recycling system, the waste in the city is usually burnt. Every car has only a single individual making use of it. The exorbitant Orange Line is subjecting endless amounts of dust onto civilians and a myriad other projects are taking place simultaneously. Uncurbed deforestation in the nation, and callous tree cutting within Lahore as well, has immense ecological impacts that cannot be related in a single article.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency created a measure called the Air Quality Index (AQI), to relay air quality information to the general public. An 8-hour average of ozone concentration between 85 to 104 parts per billion volume (ppbv) is unhealthy for ‘sensitive’ citizens, 105-124 ppbv as unhealthy to the general public and 125-404 ppbv as ‘very unhealthy’. What is currently occurring in our city has not been translated to us because the PEPA ‘lacks the equipment for real-time monitoring of the city’s air quality’ as described by the same spokesperson.

This kind of noxious environment is extremely hazardous to all civilians of society. It can inflame breathing passages, decrease the lungs’ working capacity, and cause shortness of breath, pain when inhaling deeply, wheezing, and coughing. No matter how much you try to escape it, it is present in the air of your homes and offices. One cannot imagine the impact on our birds and insects that provide us with important ecosystem services.

Cities of the world account for around 70% of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they only cover 4% of the world’s land mass. Ecosystems have often proved resilient to human damage, capable of healing itself. But human actions no longer harm only a small fragment of a forest or pollute only the air around big cities. October 31, 2016 marked the 3rd year since 2014 (when the UN announced the date) as World Cities Day. This was done to create awareness about global urban expansion and the aggressive need to challenge growth. Climate change is attributed to colossal amounts of fossil fuel combustion and monolithic deforestation. We forget, however, the primary reason these issues take place is due to the ceaseless growth of our urban landscape.

In the age of information and technology, there are ways to direct and adapt cities to benefit humans, their way of life and the natural world. Intelligently designing our cities could reduce chances of damage.

Renewable energy investments will pay back quicker if neighbourhood layouts and urban networks are coordinated with building strategies. A large-shared geothermal energy system for heating and cooling buildings within one network will help save everyone costs. Similarly, if the same is done for solar energy panels, energy savings could reach 30 percent or more. Net energy will always be produced and could be sold to other grids. This means, poorer segments of society could have electricity cheaply catered to them too. Germany is testament to the benefits of renewable energy when it paid its citizens to use electricity.

Green roofs have become exceedingly trendy, and have been known to benefit the buildings where they have been installed. Studies have indicated that buildings with green roofs are substantially cooler than neighbouring buildings that do not have them. This means a marked decrease in use of cooling or ventilation for those buildings. In addition, the ecological importance of green roofs is becoming very valuable. Firstly, it would aid the transpiration process, so that we have timely rainfalls. Secondly, they provide homes and shelter to our pollinators (birds and bees) who are slowly losing their habitats. Ensuring the health, safety and reproduction of our pollinators ensures that we are still provided with their eco-system services; such as pollination, which stabilises forest growth. Restabilising forests means keeping global warming in check, and hence reducing risks of natural disasters. Lastly, more green will ensure better air quality for all residents.

Mass transit must be completely overhauled. China is slowly working its way to become a world leader in developing state-of-the-art, fast and efficient electric trains and buses. These will carry its working population to their jobs and back with zero emissions. Zero carbon emissions spells better health for city dwellers, meaning less strain on the health system and less burden on city officials and tax payers.

Miraculously, all of this will do no harm to the environment, benefit human health and safety and save humanity billions of dollars. These are only a few examples, yet the benefits are far-reaching.

Why don’t we attribute this smog to the world’s largest polluter, from whom we live downwind, our friend and neighbour China? Lahore, Delhi and Beijing come under the world’s top 10 cities prone to the worst smog – Beijing coming in at first place. The fact is, however, that in the anthropocene era, one city or country is no longer the sole contributor – it is the entire world.