Nature and Biodiversity

How collaborative action on smog could cast new light on India-Pakistan relations

India and Pakistan are both afflicted by smog. Could it provide an opening for collaboration?

India and Pakistan are both afflicted by smog. Could it provide an opening for collaboration? Image: Climate Visuals Countdown/Raunaq Chopra

Anurit Kanti
Alumni, Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum
Muhammad Hassan Dajana
Global Shaper, Rawalpindi Hub, World Economic Forum
Syeda Hamna Shujat
Global Shaper, Lahore Hub, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

  • The smog crisis common to both India and Pakistan could provide an opportunity for collaborative climate action.
  • Collective data-sharing, research and planning could help alleviate the health impact of smog, and usher in other climate initiatives.
  • Mutual action on climate has the potential to reduce tension between the two countries.

It is increasingly obvious that the impact of anthropogenic climate change is not localized. Take, for example, the smog crisis in South Asia. On opposite sides of the border, Lahore and Delhi are notorious for having a high air quality index (AQI) during the winters, when air pollution is at its worst. Stubble-burning by farmers in India and Pakistan, coupled with other human activities like vehicular and industrial emissions, have led to a health emergency in cities in the region. This has put both Indian and Pakistani populations at risk.

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As co-authors from India and Pakistan, we strongly believe that collaboration between both countries for collective climate action, leading to pollution reduction and improvement of AQI in this belt, is critical for improving the health and well-being of both populations. This would mean moving beyond the usual geopolitical tension that plagues relations between them. There are ways in which providing an opening for conversation, collaboration and peaceful reconciliation between India and Pakistan – leveraging climate action as a means of diplomacy – can usher in a golden age for the 2 billion-strong South Asian regions.

There are four distinct ways to enable this:

1. Collaborative research on climate change and air quality

Academic and government institutions in India and Pakistan can partner up, such as the Council on Energy, Environment & Water (India), Energy & Resources Institute (TERI, India), Air Pollution Action Group (India), Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, Institute of Environmental Studies, University of Karachi (Pakistan), Centre for Excellence for Research on Clean Air (India), and so on.

They should engage in collaborative research on negating the smog crisis, through deep dives on climate change and associated air-quality challenges. Intra- and inter-regional partnerships, such as between leading academic institutions of different regions, would help encourage cooperation, and be important trust-building measures rooted in science: one example is the California-China Climate Institute. Fostering such partnerships between India and Pakistan for collaborative research could be the first step in diplomatic reconciliation between the regions. This would benefit the whole of South Asia, as the research (and the influence of such institutions) can be leveraged to benefit all countries.

2. Formation of regional accords and forums for collective action

India and Pakistan could formally sign a regional accord and have delegations (at the highest level, up to the Prime Minister’s office) speak together at forums such as the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting or the Conference of Parties (COP) to signal a new age of peace between the countries built on collective climate action. The European Green Deal, China and India adopting the Emissions Trading Scheme, and the Nordic Strategy for Sustainable Development are key examples that indicate how regional climate accords create an atmosphere for enhanced cooperation on important subject areas such as climate change. These conversations could help build bridges that one day lead to improved relations.

It is universally accepted that international collaboration in the face of crisis, such as the one we face over climate, is essential – and presents unique opportunities. An Indo-Pak Climate Peace Treaty to focus on partnership for the Sustainable Development Goals would be a good start, with a periodic evaluation of how the collaboration is leading to real-world results.

3. Data-sharing and collaborative planning on shared resources

Negating mistrust between the two governments by sharing data related to the smog crisis is important. India and Pakistan both have unique data regarding pollution sources and smog’s impacts on health and economy; this can be leveraged, just as the EU has utilized data from various regions, or the EPA for various regions of the US. Coupled with collaborative planning on shared resources, perhaps through the creation of a common fund, this could help the collective Indo-Pakistani preservation of clean air.

Working in silos for a crisis this big is often counter-productive. There are instances of past collaboration between India and Pakistan, such as the 1989 agreement to share hydrological data, which was stopped in 2019. But a similar data-sharing agreement could be put in place for the smog crisis, committing to finding a common solution, rather than placing blame. It would set an example that could be applied to other climate change challenges affecting both regions.

4. Role of technology, communication, monitoring and planning

Enhanced levels of technology-sharing and incubating solutions collectively – along with advocacy from both regions on addressing root causes and collaborating to monitor AQI – can also be important in India and Pakistan working together. India has some solutions, like Happy Seeder technology to prevent stubble burning, which could be shared with Pakistan and help scale the latter’s current efforts. The countries can also collaborate on providing clean cooking technology solutions to rural areas, where women especially are most affected by not only the smog, but also indoor pollution due to cooking with fossil fuels. India could also share cloud-seeding technology for battling smog, while Pakistan could reciprocate with the mechanized management of rice crop residue technology

Youth have often been front-runners in climate action and geopolitical reconciliation. The climate advocacy paper launched at Shape South Asia 2023 is a good example of youth collaborating for sustainable development, a spirit that should be emulated and adopted by policy-makers and governments of both countries. India and Pakistan working together to solve a common problem is applicable to many regional challenges, but the smog crisis can provide a viable start to an era of peaceful climate diplomacy.

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While working together in tension-filled geopolitical contexts between the two countries is a challenge, it can provide a much-needed impetus for wider improvements. The challenges ahead are many, but the hope for a united front among the people of India and Pakistan is strong this decade. Both nations can be bound together to make a discernible and impactful difference on the looming climate crisis.

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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityGlobal CooperationGeographies in Depth
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