June 11 - 17, 20

That was a recent past, one can easily recall, when alarmingly increasing air pollution in the mega city of Pakistan, Karachi, was taking a heavy toll on public health as well as environment. Diesel-run buses and two-stroke vehicles emitting toxic substances were plying on the roads leaving behind serious health implications in the thick layers of smokes mainly on the thoroughfares in the neighbourhoods of Burns Road, Empress Market, McLeod Road (present day I.I Chundrigar road) etc. The gravity of the air pollution could be gauged from the world health organization's placing Karachi in the list of urban centres touching air pollution level 20 times higher than its standards. Heavy traffic and industrial activities are the two major causes of particulate concentrations resulting in respiratory infections, asthmatic problems, eye irritation, and a number of other health risks. According to a conservative estimate, 550 metric tons of per year of lead emissions that are produced countrywide result in health cost of $500 million. Since Karachi is the largest city in the country, it accounted for a highest share to carbon emissions.

It has been generally accepted that introduction of compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel for road transports brought down the level of air pollution to a greater extent. One may oppose the claim of CNG dealers association, which said carbon emissions have dropped 61 per cent since the commercialization of CNG in Karachi, but it is difficult to contest the international reports that acknowledge the environment-friendliness of natural gas.

In general, engine combustion causes toxic emissions from carbon monoxide to nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. Besides creating health risks, these emissions are destructive to the ozone layer, a natural shield protecting lives on earth from harmful sunrays.

According to an international paper, emission values of CNG-combusted engines are not only lower than Euro I (emission limits for vehicles run on diesel) but also Euro II and Euro III, which are rather strict criteria. This speaks volume of environment-friendliness of natural gas.

There are more than 8,000 minibuses, 7,000 coaches, and 3,000 buses plying on the city's roads. According to Karachi Transport Ittehad, 60 per cent of minibuses and 40 per cent of coaches and buses are using CNG in the city. The difference in air pollution level in pre- and post-CNG regime can be self-explanatory in the light of above-mentioned findings of the report.

Although CNG has its own demerits including methane emissions and 50 to 100 per cent more nitrogen oxides compared with gasoline, the merits are numerous e.g. 20 to 25 per cent less carbon dioxide, up to 90 per cent less carbon monoxide, 70 to 90 per cent less non-methane hydrocarbons, and 80 per cent less ozone-generating potential, suggested another foreign research paper.

It was not before 1998 when the then government of Pakistan encouraged CNG as an alternative and environment-friendly fuel of road transportation through policy of setting up number of CNG refuelling stations countrywide and a target of converting 10,000 vehicles. Actually, hydrocarbon development institute of Pakistan (HDIP) established first CNG station in Karachi back in 1982 and in 1989 in Islamabad. The government devised the CNG rules in 1992.

In the beginning of full-fledged commercialization, CNG sector grew at an impressive rate of 50 per cent. Presently, the growth rate slowed down to 50 per cent with more than 3.5 vehicles running on CNG.

Logically, Pakistan should not promote CNG at the cost of industrialization and the government has also proved this from its relentless efforts to curb use of CNG in vehicles, though CNG sector has reiterated consumption of natural gas by the sector is negligible i.e. eight per cent of total gas production in the country. The huge investments of approximately Rs500 billion that followed the commercialization of CNG would go down the drain now when inconsiderate of the ground realities government is forcing public to give up CNG as prime transport fuel and erase their cherished memories of environment- and money- friendliness of it, and investors to wind up their businesses. Losses to the national treasury would certainly be great. Funds have also been allocated to develop infrastructure and promote the compressed gas. This is relaying negative signals related to uncertainty of the government policies and may dull investment outlook.

People are obviously concerned about per kilometre cost of running vehicles. They need cheap fuel and that is not some kind of daydreaming. It is possible provided nonpartisan will and resolution for the collective benefits assume the charge of the policy response.

The bombshell of gas development surcharge of 300 per cent (currently 147 per cent) that is about to pound at the sector, will hit again in the belly of consumers using CNG in vehicles or travelling on CNG-fitted public transports as it would push up the prices of popular fuel.

Until Pakistan hits upon a bonanza of hydrocarbon resources, it should look for alternative eco-friendly sources of energy. It is a self-destructive action to spend lavishly on oil imports. Oil import bill should be cut down as much as possible and import should be limited for the selected industries.

Internationally, natural gas is considered the most environment-friendly fossil fuel. Its production is also less costly than that of liquid fuel.

The government is looking for imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to reduce the energy shortfall in the country. It has already signed an agreement with Qatar to import 500 million cubic feet per day of LNG, which is expected to be used for power generation. There are reports that cost of imported gas would be 100 per cent higher than the current consumer price. There is a need to explore clean fuel options for public transports but they should also be affordable. Karachi circular railways project has been catching the dusts for years. The establishment of integrated road and rail systems is need of the hour to reduce health, environmental, and economic costs of road transports. Local government of Karachi tried to clear the transport mess and succeeded to some degree to give commuters in the metropolis clean fuel burning public transports. Efficient and effective management should continue.