As a quick fix to the smog crisis in Lahore, the Punjab government has announced plans to install smog towers in Lahore and other areas of the province. While the towers are effective in clearing air-pollution in the short-term, the effects from them are certainly not long-lasting.
Environmental experts and activists have claimed that the towers are equivalent to papering over major cracks. But how effective are they really, and is anything being done to try and control the smog crisis in the long-run?
What are smog towers?
Think of smog towers as mega structures that act as air purifiers. They consist of multiple layers of air filters and fans at the base to suck air. Once the polluted air enters the smog tower, it is purified across multiple layers and then released back into the atmosphere. Its prototype was built in 2017 in Beijing, followed by Tianjin, Krakow and Delhi.
China agreed to export this technology to Pakistan. This development was made at a successful meeting between the Chief Minister of Punjab, Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi and the Chinese Consul General, Zhao Shiren in Lahore. Given the dire air quality of Lahore, the Chinese consulate provided extensive documents detailing the smog towers already installed in China to the CM Office Task Force Smog. According to the CM secretariat, “Chinese smog towers appear to be an antidote of air pollution.” There are further plans to install smog towers near border areas and industrial areas.
Are smog towers effective?
In glowing awe of the smog towers, the CM secretariat seems confident that China’s Institute of Earth Environment will be able to help Lahore. The institute has constructed the world’s largest smog tower in the northern city of Xi’an: “The 100 meters tall smog-sucking tower is designed to improve air quality in the city, where standards regularly fall short of the expectations set by the World Health Organisation.” Moreover, to assess the tower’s impact, the pollution monitoring stations in the vicinity indicated that the PM2.5 (most harmful smog particles) levels had decreased by 15% compared to the average levels.
According to environmentalist Naseem Shaid, “as the Punjab government has declared an environmental emergency, smog-free towers are the need of the hour for Punjab.” He added that the Xi’an smog tower has managed to produce more than 10 million cubic meters of clear air since its inception. “On severely polluted days, it has reduced smog close to moderate levels.”
In evaluating their efficacy, he says, “the purpose of this project is to find an effective and low-cost method of artificially removing pollutants from the atmosphere. China has already housed what was considered as the largest smog tower designed by the Dutch artist, Daan Roosegaarde at 798, a creative park in Beijing. It was only 7 meters (23 feet) tall and produced around 8 cubic meters (282.5 feet) of clean air per second.”
However, not all environmentalists are too optimistic about this. According to Raffay Alam, Pakistan’s leading environmental lawyer, “smog towers are known not to work. They failed massively in Delhi. In India, you’ll find a whole bunch of experts who denounce this as a ridiculous idea. It’s nothing but a waste of money.”
In August 2021, the Delhi government installed two smog towers after a Supreme Court ruling. This development was deeply criticized however. Firstly, smog towers were only effective in purifying the surrounding air. Their effect wasn’t widespread. Secondly, this limited impact wasn’t justified by the high costs of installation and maintenance.
A similar case can be made for Pakistan as well.
Polash Mukherjee from NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) India reported to India Today, “Outdoor purifiers are similar to installing air conditioners on a particularly hot day. A study suggested that at least 40,000 such smog towers will be required to make any impact.” Therefore, smog towers are ineffective in curbing air pollution.
Their impact is restricted to the surrounding area, around 100 meters. An RTI (right to information) filed by an environmental activist, Amit Gupta indicated that the smog tower reduced PM 10 pollution levels by up to 27% at a distance of 100 meters. Reporting to India Today, he said that prior to functioning, it was claimed that smog towers would be effective within a radius of 1 kilometer.
“We need to think if we need such costly technology of INR 22 crores to be installed and require further INR 2 crores for annual maintenance. These funds could be spent on more effective strategies that would make a substantive impact.”
What would those strategies be?
According to environmental experts, “governments should instead tackle root causes: reduce emissions and promote renewable energy.” Installation of smog towers- apart from its limited impact- is by large a quick fix solution. It offers immediate relief from air pollution, and that too in a limited capacity.
“The only way to prevent smog is by controlling its sources, the fuel from motor vehicles and power plants,” concludes Raffay Alam. He expressed doubts over the Punjab government’s competency in tackling air pollution also, “the Punjab government is also clutching at straws. They don’t even know if they’ll survive the next High Court hearing.”
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