In-depth | Environment

Pollution: How Change Happens

By - 08.02.2018

Activism has helped to clean up air around the world.

Driving up Bill Clinton Boulevard another traffic jam packs the highway. The sound of honking horns mixes with metal grinding from a blacksmith and the thrum of a distant generator. Above it all hangs a cloud of smog from wood burning stoves, lignite-fueled power plants, and the slow but persistent growth of infrastructure.

Prishtina’s development over the last 10 years has meant an increase in wealth, business, and large-scale projects. However, more progress means more pollution and the citizens of Prishtina are beginning to raise their voices from behind their facemasks.

But the question remains, is community activism enough to affect long-term policy change in Kosovo? To find out, K2.0 examined environmental activism in some of the most polluted places in the world.

First, it’s necessary to look at the real cost of pollution on a society. According to a recent report in medical journal The Lancet, air pollution is responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths worldwide. Even in low dose exposure, pollution harms the most vulnerable populations disproportionately. Therefore, children, the elderly, the infirm and even unborn babies are at the greatest risk of pollution related disease. This is especially relevant in low and middle income countries where municipalities have less fiscal capability to deal with long term issues.

These issues also put pressure on the healthcare system and the economy but despite this, tackling air pollution rarely finds itself a political priority until a tipping point is reached.

In the U.S., Los Angeles hit several tipping points before finally enacting change. During World War II, the massive boost in production from the aeronautics industry combined with a post-war population boom created a veil of smog so thick that people famously suspected a Japanese chemical attack.

Los Angeles and Prishtina share a similar topographical problem which allows them to be more susceptible to pollution. Both cities are sunk low in a valley and surrounded by mountains which creates what is called a temperature inversion. This temperature inversion acts as a pollution trap, centralizing the problem over the city and making it easy to pollute and hard to clean up.

Pollution season

However, Prishtina has the added difficulty of experiencing seasonally high levels of pollution during the winter months when electricity is most in demand and wood burning stoves are widely used to provide heating. This means that the pollution problem becomes apparent during the winter but is largely forgotten during summer months, making a sustained level of activism difficult.

Luan Shllaku, an environmental activist and the executive director of the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS), stated the difficulty with seasonal pollution in Prishtina. “We’ve had this problem for the last 40 years and people are either unaware or they don’t care,” he told K2.0 “When people are aware of the problem they can react. We don’t react during the summer, we wait until the winters.”

Without sustained pressure put on politicians through the public and the media, it is difficult to force change in the political sphere.

Given the lack of seasonal variation in Los Angeles and the constant growth of industry, pollution was a daily fact of life for Angelenos starting in the 1940s. The problem was first met with denial fueled by the oil and automotive industries in Southern California. Eventually protests began. As early as 1954, thousands were speaking out against the air quality in Los Angeles.

Eventually, the Hollywood glitterati took up the cause, bringing their children to social functions wearing gas masks, an image which the press adored. These were, in effect, the first modern environmental protests to take place in the United States, which utilized both private citizens and local news outlets.

Air pollution in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century reached levels that triggered widespread protest, including by Hollywood stars. Photo: Creative commons.

The role of new media became a determining factor in the recent environmental protests in Prishtina, which saw hundreds taking to the streets to demand action to tackle “hazardous” levels of air pollution.

Luan Shllaku spoke about the importance of media and social media in creating the recent movement for environmental reform. “Activism, journalism and citizen involvement, and media and social media made this happen,” he said. “This was the first time that people were not divided along political lines in a protest of this kind.”

However, the question remains, will the citizens of Prishtina be able to sustain the pressure until change takes place?

In Los Angeles, the grassroots protests eventually culminated in a wide array of policy changes including The Clean Air Act of 1970 which set a standard air quality in Los Angeles. This also resulted in the inclusion of yearly smog checks on all automobiles. Though the change was slow, taking almost 20 years to take hold, the grassroots campaign against pollution eventually ended in political action and reform.

Sadly, this is not the same story around the world. In their paper Environmental Justice: Grassroots Activism and its Impact on Policy Making, Robert D. Bullard and Glenn S Johnson state “Hazardous wastes and ‘dirty industries’ have followed the path of least resistance. Poor people and poor nations are given the false choice of ‘no jobs and no development’ versus ‘risky low-paying jobs and pollution.’”

Short term solutions

China’s rise to dominance as a global manufacturer created an environmental catastrophe in the communist state. Air pollution levels in Beijing regularly reach over 250 PM2.5, a measure for the fine particulate matter per cubic meter contained within the air. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that healthy levels of PM2.5 is under 25.

These hazardous levels of particulate matter in the air make facemasks a staple of Chinese streetwear during the winter months when pollution is at its highest. American performer, Rebecca Mason-Wygal traveled through Beijing over summer when pollution was at its lowest, “My entire team developed a dry cough,” she told K2.0. “Then we got better about wearing our masks. All of the locals were wearing their masks all the time.”

During seldom issued ‘red alert days,’ where PM 2.5 is measuring between 151 and 200, Beijing has been known to shut down roads, stop production at factories and ground flights in order to bring pollution levels down. In 2017, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took dramatic measures to stop or delay the construction of over 151 coal fired power plants as it attempts to wean itself off of the sky blackening mineral. Yet, there is a political balancing act at play in Beijing.

When China addresses pollution it does so in short term measures, usually in the form of shuttering factories, stopping traffic or grounding flights. No country can tolerate loss of infrastructure or massive unemployment for long even though it may mean bluer skies.

Kosovo has made similar efforts to stop pollution in the short term with traffic being halted in Prishtina for a short period. But these solutions do little to stop endemic problems. Prishtina rapidly created super highways and left power plants functioning long after their technological life span.

Lignite fueled power plant, Kosovo A, was foreseen to be closed in 2017 but has yet to do so due to a lack of a replacement. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The environmental cost of urban development like this is paid in the consistently high rates of PM2.5 in the air. However, with rising energy prices and robust trade with regional partners, the Kosovar government is prioritizing short term gains over the long term health of its citizens. Fortunately, the public is able to make their wishes known in Prishtina.

The public voice against Chinese pollution has largely been silenced. Last winter a protest in Chengdu involving putting face masks on statues in the city center resulted in a massive government response to silence public opinion. The city center was shut down and many arrests were made.

This is the way that most environmental protests go in China. The CCP allows people to join state sanctioned environmental groups, but ultimately, public sentiment in the face of pollution is silenced. With a government in Beijing attempting to manage a booming manufacturing sector and its increased global profile, it appears that the bottomline is the determining factor in Chinese environmental policy rather than the wishes of protestors.

The power of data

China is not the only government to keep environmental degradation low on their list of priorities.

In Lahore in Pakistan, November brings a perfect storm of pollution. Due to seasonal crop burnings, dropping temperatures and increased industry, environmental activists have termed November a “5th season” for Lahore. According to a recently published article in the New York Times, Lahore experienced days where the PM 2.5 measured over 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

Pakistan, is not only at the mercy of a mountainous topography which traps pollution but it also sits in a rapidly industrializing region with a growing population. Pollution knows no borders and there is a synergistic effect between the pollution in India and Pakistan.

One of the difficulties with addressing the pollution problem in Pakistan is a lack of information. In a statement released by the Environmental Protection Department of the Government of Punjab, the district of Pakistan where Lahore is located, stated that “data is scant.” Pakistan has yet to begin officially monitoring the problem which leaves it at a severe disadvantage when it comes to fixing it.

Information became a crucial factor in raising awareness of the pollution problem in Prishtina. When the the United State Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) began monitoring pollution in March of 2016 the information was made public to the people of Kosovo. News outlets and civil society organizations began to publicize the levels of pollution which were reaching into “hazardous” levels. Information allowed the people to organize and eventually protest.

The Science For Change Movement, a Prishtina based environmental civil society organization is seeking to empower citizen scientists to generate their own information through education. Co-founder of the organization, Ron Salaj, believes that information was the key to forcing political action in Kosovo.

“In the case of the air pollution, the information is supposed to belong to the people (i.e. the data on the quality of the air),” Salaj told K2.0 in an email. “This was kept hidden by Ministry of Environment and its Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency for many years and they were not disclosed.”

The Science for Change Movement has started to use citizens to collect data on air quality. “I hope that the current protest is only the beginning of an act of resistance that not only tackles air pollution but also the environmental commons, such as forests, water, soil, the city, etc,” he stated. In the case of environmental standards, that which does not get monitored does not get managed. Science for Change, hopes that greater monitoring will lead to increased management.

In Lahore, Pakistan, air pollution also became an unavoidable issue with citizens protesting and measuring air quality themselves. Photo courtesy of Aima Khosa.

Similarly, in Pakistan, citizens of Lahore have taken to monitoring the air quality themselves. Groups such as Pakistani Air Quality Initiative (PAQI) have begun installing private air quality control monitors in order to gather actionable data. This has resulted in the beginnings of a grassroots movement in Pakistan in an attempt to lead the policy discussion.

Aima Khosa, an activist with The People’s Solidarity Forum told K2.0 in an email that, “environmental concerns are appearing more and more in our public discourse because they can no longer be ignored. Water was always a problem but we were alarmed one day when we woke up and the entire city looked like a painting of a dystopia.”

One of the difficulties that Pakistani protesters are facing is the lack of sustained public pressure to ensure that policies change. While activists are making strides in acknowledging the size of the problem through independent measurements, the data is useless without the will to bring it to the attention of policy makers. “Protests die after one news cycle passes,” states Khosa. “The government is trying, but pollution is not a priority for them. Things are definitely getting worse.”

We have seen that in the case of Los Angeles that sustained political activism in an atmosphere which permits it has the power to move governments to think about the long term before it is too late.

Luan Shllaku, sitting in the KFOS office the day after the protests, puts the responsibility on the whole society. “I don’t see a magic way of getting clean water and air. We will be dealing with this questions for the next two or three decades. Prishtina very well advanced compared to the cases of Pakistan, China, and the United States. Last week was one of the biggest pressures that I’ve seen. We can put pressure on the government and force them to act.”K

Feature image: K2.0