The newly drafted Clean Air Act presents us with an opportunity to breathe a little easier
The dire quality of Dhaka’s air is nothing shocking. The capital has been consistently positioned near the bottom ten of the Air Quality Index (AQI), prompting authorities to seek a new law for cleaner air.
The upcoming Clean Air Act is a welcome development, since existing policies are not yielding any desirable results. There are standards and mandates under the Environmental Conservation Rules 97 and associated amendments, but the patchwork laws are not dynamic enough to account for the temporal and spatial variation of pollutants present in ambient air.
Our current standards, promulgated in 2005, are copied from the US’s Environmental Protection Agency -- which has since moved on to updating its standards twice in the following decades, whereas the standards have remained the same in Bangladesh.
Whereas in the US these standards are scientifically derived based on numerous factors, the situation is very different in Bangladesh. This is not to say that we have never had periods of good air.
A recent study analyzed PM readings with annual averaging time, but the same authors have previously highlighted the seasonal differences of PM concentration in a different study (Begum, Biswas, and Hopke).
The question that arises here is: How useful is an ambient standard that we have not complied with since 1996? Since our winter sees a spike in PM concentration, perhaps a scientific research agenda can be developed, and new standards can be established on six-month averages to truly reflect compliance and non-compliance periods.
Ideally, achieving these standards is a state responsibility. In Bangladesh, authorities have only recently fulfilled the responsibility of adopting a standard but have not followed up on implementation, which state designation of determining which airsheds or air-quality control regions are in “attainment” and “non-attainment” for each of the pollutants.
This has limited our ability to design spatially and temporally differentiated policies for cleaner air. Dhaka’s airshed can be deemed “degraded,” which has a “non-attainment” status. Therefore, establishing any further brick kilns, or renewal of existing permits, must require the kilns to have some sort of impact mitigating mechanisms.
These rules can be relaxed for other “attainment” airsheds where the marginal impacts of another kiln will not be too severe. To present an analogy, the airsheds are treated as a parking lot where the capacity is defined, and entry of new cars will be allowed if only there is space available.
On the other hand, airsheds hosting Ecologically Critical Areas (ECAs), like the Sundarbans, can have strategies for preventing any significant deterioration, and so any permit can be designed accordingly.
The new legislation needs to be comprehensive in order to address the concentration of pollutants -- especially ozone and PM. Therefore, the coverage of the new act for polluting sources also needs further expansion.
Proliferation of dry cleaners, fuelling stations, and printing shops makes this an opportune moment to bring these sources of hazardous air pollutants under regulatory framework. In recent years, road dust has become a pressing issue which can be blamed on construction and infrastructure development work. These issues can be brought under the new act, with appropriate mitigation and enforcement guidelines.
The new act can incorporate citizen suit provisions to allow citizens to report violators, making them entitled to a percentage of the issued fine, similar to the provisions made in Consumer Rights Protection Act (2009).
Following this practice, we can also include public nuisances such as piling up of sand and other construction materials on footpaths; and identifying uncovered waste and sand-laden trucks.
Clean Air Act regulations need to be dynamic enough to suit temporary extremes such as smog. Following the current practice of determining AQI, drastic steps may be required for smog if it becomes severe. Such practices have started to take root in cities such as Beijing and New Delhi.
It should go without saying, but research related to emission inventories, atmospheric modelling, source/ambient monitoring, control technologies, health, and ecological monitoring also needs to be prioritized under the new act.
Nabil Haque is a researcher of environmental policy currently pursuing PhD at Stony Brook University, NY.