How Lahore Became the World’s Most Polluted Place

Unprecedented smog in the “city of gardens” comes from a confluence of familiar factors.

By , a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities.
Vehicles make their way amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov. 17.
Vehicles make their way amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov. 17.
Vehicles make their way amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov. 17. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

This past month, Lahore, Pakistan, has repeatedly topped the daily ranking of most polluted city in the world. Pollution and winter weather conditions combine to shroud the city in smog—disrupting flights, causing major road closures, and wreaking havoc on the health of its citizenry.

The problem of air pollution has been steadily growing in Lahore and many other cities in Punjab province. Punjab is the most populous province in Pakistan with an estimated population of 110 million people. Five cities in Punjab were listed among the 50 most polluted cities in the world in 2020. The situation in other major Pakistani cities, such as the coastal megalopolis of Karachi, is not much better. Yet, the current situation in Lahore is most alarming, with its fine particulate count repeatedly rising well above 40 times the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline values.

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes varied health complications, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, strokes, heart problems, and shortened life expectancy. The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution-related illnesses. Decision-makers have been slow to react to the pollution problem. In 2019, Pakistan’s minister of climate change infamously dubbed growing concern about the smog problem in Lahore as being a conspiratorial attempt to spread misinformation. Many officials and politicians continue blaming stubble burning by Indian farmers as the main cause for Lahore’s smog problem. Blaming India may be a tit-for-tat response to similar Indian accusations, but it not an accurate assessment. Ever-changing wind patterns during the stubble-burning season mean wind directions keep fluctuating across the India-Pakistan border. “The smog in Lahore is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors,” said Saleem Ali, a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. Namely, temperature inversion traps pollution in the atmosphere, which—alongside seasonal crop burning on the Indian-Pakistani border—combines with other sources of year-round pollution and fog to cause a spike in pollution and winter smog.

This past month, Lahore, Pakistan, has repeatedly topped the daily ranking of most polluted city in the world. Pollution and winter weather conditions combine to shroud the city in smog—disrupting flights, causing major road closures, and wreaking havoc on the health of its citizenry.

The problem of air pollution has been steadily growing in Lahore and many other cities in Punjab province. Punjab is the most populous province in Pakistan with an estimated population of 110 million people. Five cities in Punjab were listed among the 50 most polluted cities in the world in 2020. The situation in other major Pakistani cities, such as the coastal megalopolis of Karachi, is not much better. Yet, the current situation in Lahore is most alarming, with its fine particulate count repeatedly rising well above 40 times the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline values.

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes varied health complications, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, strokes, heart problems, and shortened life expectancy. The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution-related illnesses. Decision-makers have been slow to react to the pollution problem. In 2019, Pakistan’s minister of climate change infamously dubbed growing concern about the smog problem in Lahore as being a conspiratorial attempt to spread misinformation. Many officials and politicians continue blaming stubble burning by Indian farmers as the main cause for Lahore’s smog problem. Blaming India may be a tit-for-tat response to similar Indian accusations, but it not an accurate assessment. Ever-changing wind patterns during the stubble-burning season mean wind directions keep fluctuating across the India-Pakistan border. “The smog in Lahore is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors,” said Saleem Ali, a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. Namely, temperature inversion traps pollution in the atmosphere, which—alongside seasonal crop burning on the Indian-Pakistani border—combines with other sources of year-round pollution and fog to cause a spike in pollution and winter smog.

The reasons why air quality has been steadily declining in cities like Lahore are numerous. Vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, fossil fuel-fired power plants, the burning of waste materials, and coal being burned by thousands of brick kilns spattered across the province are all part of the problem. A Food and Agriculture Organization’s source appropriation study in 2020 singles out power producers, industry, and the transport sector in particular as culprits.

Over the past 15 years, Lahore has lost a significant proportion of its tree cover due to an aggressive plan to build highways, underpasses, and overpasses. Car sales in the city are booming, and many of the cars plying the roads spew toxic emissions due to a lack of vehicular inspections and widespread adulteration of fuel. Even the unadulterated form of fuel available in Lahore is of low quality.

The lack of vehicular fitness and emissions testing, alongside use of poor-quality fuel, have compounded the city’s air pollution problem, said Hammad Naqi Khan, director-general of World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan. Federal plans to switch to Euro 5-compliant fuel have faltered due to lingering economic troubles, including rising inflation. Faced with an alarmingly high level of air pollution in Lahore, the Punjab government has announced the imposition of a provincial embargo on Euro 2 fuel supplies, which is supposed to go into effect as of next month. Whether the provincial government’s plan to switch to cleaner fuel will fare any better than the federal government’s earlier resolve remains to be seen.

Conversely, bicyclists and pedestrians, who made up almost 45 percent of traffic in Lahore in 2015, remain a low priority when it comes to planning transport infrastructure, evidenced by the near absence of bike lanes or even sidewalks. And while Lahore has invested in expensive metro bus and rail projects, the feeder transit system needed to further optimize use of these metro public transport projects has not received enough attention.

Lahore, along with the rest of Pakistan, desperately needs to shift away from its reliance on fossil fuels. Doing so would help clean up the transport and energy production sectors simultaneously. Last year, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority noted that due to fossil fuels’ price volatility and renewables’ decreasing cost, viable options for meeting the country’s energy needs through more sustainable sources were needed. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has also set an ambitious target for Pakistan to generate 30 percent of its energy needs via renewable sources by 2030. Achieving this target will not be easy. Powerful interests are invested in the promotion of fossil fuels and the transmission infrastructure it requires.

When faced with acute power shortages, Pakistan has recently turned to China to help meet its electricity shortfalls under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As elsewhere within China’s broader Belt and Road Initiative, China exported its coal-fired technology to plants being set up in the Punjab and elsewhere in the country. Around 19 percent of power generation in Pakistan in 2019-2020 was produced by just four coal-fired CPEC power plants, including the 1320MW Sahiwal coal-fired power plant, located in the agricultural heartland of Punjab.

China has recently vowed to stop financing coal-fired energy projects abroad, but this announcement will probably not impact projects that are already in the pipeline, including another coal-fired plant in Arifwala, Punjab. As Pakistan’s government also remains keen to exploit indigenous coal reserves to produce electricity, it has announced plans to mitigate pollution by potentially converting existing and future coal-fired plants into coal-to-liquid or coal-to-gas plants. Yet, environmentalists worry such processes are costly, water and energy intensive, and do not provide a sustainable solution to meet Pakistan’s energy requirements.

Judicial activism, monitoring, and reportage by local and international agencies has at last compelled Punjab’s government to pay attention to Lahore’s pollution problem. The provincial Environment Protection Department is now tracking and reporting air quality data, but this data is still unreliable, patchy, and based on a handful of air quality monitors. The provincial government also has several rules on the books that enable it to measure and fine polluters. Yet, there is a lack of capacity and resolve to ensure effective enforcement due to contradictory positions adopted by those in charge to deal with the problem. Although the Commissioner Lahore Office has constituted anti-smog squads in the city, Punjab’s minister for environment protection has simultaneously asked law enforcement agencies to act against private individuals or companies issuing unauthorized air quality data, which he feels is harming the country’s reputation.

Decision-makers in Lahore focus on Band-Aid solutions; for example, on particularly pollution-heavy days, offices and schools are closed to lessen human exposure and reduce traffic emissions. Punitive measures also target farmers who burn stubble and clamp down on brick kilns. However, environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam said while these “punitive actions against softer targets may be visible, they will remain ineffective if other major sources of air pollution are not addressed.”

According to architect and sustainable design advocate Raza Ali Dada, “Lahore needs a multipronged approach to contend with its environmental woes, including air pollution, which in turn necessitates attention to improved urban planning as well.” Regularizing urban slums that lack any form of waste management could help address problematic practices, such as trash burning, for instance. More efficient urban management can reduce energy consumption and vehicular emissions. Instead, there is a profusion of encroachment into surrounding agricultural areas to create gated communities without much thought to the enormous environmental stress caused by unplanned urban sprawl.

Khan’s stated environmental agenda of “greening” Pakistan has not prevented him from endorsing the multitrillion-rupee Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project. Critics fear this project will cause massive displacement, wreak havoc to Pakistan’s longest river’s ecology, and worsen pollution and air quality in Lahore for years to come.

In the absence of comprehensive and concerted efforts to combat air pollution, Lahore, once known as the “city of gardens,” is tragically choking on toxic air. Instead of looking forward to the welcomed reprieve of winter months, Lahore’s 13 million residents now must brace themselves for another bout of smog, which has acquired the status of a “fifth season.”

Syed Mohammad Ali is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.