Winter days are marked by fog in Lahore. The hazy mornings call for cozy dressing and warm drinks. However, all is not that romantic when it comes to what we are experiencing these days in the name of fog, according to the seminar held on “Fog Frequency across South-Asia: A Climate Change Perspective” at Sustainable Development Policy Institute, (SDPI) recently in Islamabad. The seminar was timely, especially in context with fog phenomenon that causes much stress to people and businesses alike.

Dr. Faisal Saeed Syed, Assistant Professor, Department of Meteorology, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology shared his study, which indicated that fog frequency has increased more than 3 times in the last 35 years. This goes to show that, while some accept fog as a natural part of winters in plains and mountainous areas, it is more of a problem being exasperated by air pollution. Industrialization and unchecked use of modified auto-vehicles such as rickshaws and Qingqis has horribly affected the levels of air pollution, causing harm to human and plant life both.

Fog, a result of air pollution and degrading climactic changes, is one of the major weather hazards across South Asia. It extends to hundreds of thousands of kilometers and causes trans-boundary troubles. Since it travels with air, one country’s air pollution may end up affecting another country. Similar to this occurrence is the case of the Southeast Asian Haze that originates in Indonesia because of rapid deforestation and burning of wood, but extended to Singapore and Malaysia as well. This event soured diplomatic ties because the latter nations had to cancel economic and social activity to wait out the ending of the effects of the haze, causing damage to environment, health and businesses.

Locally, we are aware that fog dramatically reduces visibility, which causes accidents on roads. The Lahore-Islamabad Motorway is often closed during winters because of fog, causing grave economic damage to businesses that are present along the route and bus travel services. Many flights are delayed, diverted or cancelled due to fog as well, causing a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to airlines, both national and international, and inconveniencing passengers. As noted by the SDPI, “the total economic loss associated with the impact of fog occurrence can be comparable to that of tornadoes or, in some cases, winter storms and hurricanes.”

In this vein, civil society is not unaware of the affects of fog either. Maha Kamal, a young Pakistani scholar and climate change activist based in Islamabad, has recently registered a petition on the website Change.org, to direct the attention of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, to find sustainable alternatives to using coal, which according to the petitioner, adds to the density and deadliness of fog. She echoes the words of Arshad H. Abbasi, Senior Advisor on Energy and Water for the SDPI, who recently commented that, just like the South East Asian Haze, there are transboundary environmental issues that are adding to the fog cover in Pakistan as well. He states that research done in Bangalore proves that the coal used to produce energy in India is of poor quality, and burning it adds further pollutants to the air, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. He believes India is violating transnational environmental laws by creating negative externalities for the countries it shares borders with. “Indian scientists concede that coal-based thermal power plants are major air pollutants, including small particle pollutants — the aerosol. We need a consensus on sharing our concerns at the top political level with India, because it is not just an environmental issues anymore, it is an economic and political matter as well,” says Mr. Abbasi.

Maha Kamal asserts the same in her petition and says, "I am associated with an organization passionate about the environment and a sustainable future. This petition is a part of our efforts to move towards a tangible solution to the fog, and other environmental issues associated with it."

Fog, though apparently harmless, has several repercussions according to scientists and climate change specialists, as is apparent in a study conducted by SUPARCO (Pakistan Space & Upper Atomosphere Research Center). The study, titled “Study of Widespread Winter Fog in Northeastern Pakistan and Northern India”, also quotes several instances of atmospheric and environmental negligence to be blamed for the widespread fog, particularly emphasizing the role of industrial pollutants and coal usage in this matter. The study states, “The causes of the fog as investigated by SUPARCO showed extraordinarily high concentrations of ammonium sulphate. The results have serious implications on human health. The fog is also expected to have impact on agriculture, general economy and global and regional climate.” Another main point in the study is that Lahore and adjoining areas face the downwind affect of coal burning in Indian territory, which adds to the fog phenomenon.

A thorough look into the causes of the fog phenomenon is the need of the hour. As Mr. Abbasi stresses, before we can experience another foggy winter, it is hoped by specialists and scientists that, along with a firm agenda of reconciliation with India, the country can also be compelled to rethink its coal energy strategy to cut back on emissions and reducing the haze that so many of us naively enjoy as fog.