Lockdown = cleaner air, an erroneous conclusion?


With many countries in the world being under lockdown, many images and stories were shared about how that had a positive impact on and contributed towards restoring our environment – giving cleaner air, especially in Sri Lanka. Scientist Dr. Lareef Zubair seems to think that it was actually a change in wind direction experienced in Sri Lanka every April that contributed mostly to this improvement, while acknowledging that reductions in burning fossil fuel with less vehicles on the road also had a role to play, although less significant.

Dr. Zubair is the Principal Scientist at the Federation for Environment, Climate, and Technology (FECT). He holds a PhD from Yale University, and worked as a senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya and also at the Institute of Fundamental Studies, University Consortium for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, International Research Institute for Climate and Society in New York, and the Water Centre at Columbia University in New York City.

Wind patterns main reason

He spoke to The Sunday Morning Brunch in depth about how wind patterns shift twice a year in Sri Lanka and how it contributes to the improvement of pollution levels.

“As the wind reverses, it brings in pristine air from the southern Indian Ocean to Colombo rather than from Sri Lanka’s northern landmass and the lands to the North. After April, the pollution from these sources are directed to the interior of Sri Lanka and beyond, but not towards Colombo.”

He went on to explain that this changes once again in November when the wind pattern reverses, coming in from the North of our island. There is a significant difference when the winds enter from the northern end of the island; it originates from the Indian landmass and also passes through the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant and land areas where biomass burning occurs and high amounts of pollutants are exuded into the air. This change in the wind pattern naturally improves the air quality experienced in Colombo in April and then leads to a decline after October.

“Till April, the sun is on the southern side of our country. And during the month of April, it crosses our island and moves to the North. When this happens, the air gets sucked in, resulting in a change in the wind pattern. Sri Lanka experiences a change in climate with this as well. The two wind seasons span from November to March and April to October. This situation is very unique to Sri Lanka and other regions of the same latitude because of the geographic location,” he said, further explaining how it takes place. He went on to state that there is a lack of research on the effect this natural phenomenon has on the air quality and the level of pollution experienced.

Coal plants worsen situation

“In addition to the polluted air that comes to the island from India between November and March, the wind that flows through also passes the coal-burning energy power plant based in Norochcholai.” Dr. Zubair recognises this plant to be a huge step back with relation to environmentally sustainable energy-producing plants. In addition, the plant in Norochcholai has also experienced many malfunctions in the past that only negatively contribute to the overall picture. Burning coal is extremely harmful to the environment.

“When the rest of the world is moving towards renewable energy sources, in Sri Lanka, we are encouraging these harmful practices. Even when an individual or entity attempts to (change their consumption pattern) to generate renewable energy sources, they have to undergo long processes and (face) roadblocks. If we do not change the incentives, it will have an impact on the life spans of our citizens.” 

We also approached National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) Air Quality Unit senior scientist H.D.S Premasiri to further establish this fact. He too confirmed that during any given year, due to the change in wind direction, this time of year records the best air quality especially in and around Colombo.

However, he also spoke of the increasement in air quality during the curfew period. “In my service of 20-plus years, this has been the time where I have witnessed the lowest pollution levels and best air quality, especially in Colombo. Along with the change in wind direction, the decrease in the use of vehicles and traffic also contributed to achieve these record-low levels of pollution. It dropped down by 70%!

“However, with the country now returning to full functionality, the pollution levels in the air are on the rise again. We have already seen a 10-20% increase. We will be carefully observing this in the coming weeks.”

With this, Dr. Zubair also shared that a fourth coal-based plant has been proposed to be built in the Puttalam District.

“The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) of Sri Lanka has conducted two Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), enrolling independent consultants. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and its consultants produced the EIA reports and the CEA, and later the North Western Provincial Environment Authority. These reports were accepted but they are supposed to do an annual review of the performance along with the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). However, as I see, the problem is whether they have assessed the implementing capabilities and this has to be monitored over time.

“Unfortunately for the country, this project was approved on 4 June by the Cabinet of Ministers. They approved the setting up of an additional 300 MW coal power plant with the usual platitudes about ensuring the use of clean technology and protecting the environment in the north-western District of Puttalam,” he shared, stating that he firmly believes that is another step taken in the wrong direction.

Burning and emissions major contributors

Apart from the contributions made by the coal energy plant, Dr. Zubair also observed that during the month of March, there is an increase in burning activities related to agriculture where harvest waste is burned and forest fires occur during the dry period.

Apart from that, the garbage burning practice in Sri Lanka also contributes to the decrease in air quality. When asked about burning firewood for fuel, he mentioned that this practice also has a negative impact; even though stoves are seen as a more energy-efficient option, the impact it has is not significant. He also spoke of the emissions of industries, both small and large, and the amount of pollutants it releases to the air.

“Although the country was under curfew and the number of vehicles on the road were significantly less, these coal plants operated at an above-normal level compared to the other power plants. Yet, we experienced an improvement of quality in the air. When calculated, the contribution of fossil fuel burning along with industry emissions only amounts to approximately 30%, proving the levels of contribution from other activities, thus proving that air quality control does not simply revolve around it,” he said.

Dr. Zubair further stated his thoughts on the relationship between the increase in air quality and the curfew period in Sri Lanka, as other countries may experience different atmospheric realities.

We also spoke about steps that can be taken to mitigate this problem both at individual and state levels. With relation to traffic control, Dr. Zubair believes that introducing the emission tests (testing programmes for vehicles) caused a huge improvement and gave credit to the CEA for implementing it.

Inadequate research done in these areas leads to uninformed decision-making, and therefore he sees the importance of investing more resources for research. He also believes that we need to change the trend of forest burning in relation to agriculture and in urban areas with garbage burning, as we have challenges with solid waste disposal.

Embracing more energy-saving options in our lifestyle decisions is also important and should be promoted and encouraged by the Government.

He emphasised that the most important thing to do is to get rid of energy production that is dependent on coal, and predicts that we will face serious repercussions in the next 30-40 years and will ruin the health and environment of the country for generations to come. He also urges the Government to look into this.