November 30, 2022
Research at the American University of Beirut has shown that the level of toxic emissions from generators may have quadrupled since Lebanon's financial crisis began, because of an increased reliance on them. Dr. Issam Lakkis elaborates on this—its effect on the environment and public health—and discusses possible solutions in the absence of regulations.
How would you describe the current situation?
To give some background to this issue, Lebanon imports more than 95% of its energy requirement in the form of fossil fuel. Pollution due to the combustion of fossil fuel in Lebanon comes from two major sources: diesel generators and the transportation fleet, such as the cars, trucks, and buses. What is unique about Lebanon is that you rarely see diesel generators as the dominant source of energy or almost the only source of energy. This problem of the diesel generators is not new. We have been relying on them over the past three decades to compensate for the frequent electricity supply shortage from the national grid.
Of course, the situation took a sharp turn in 2019 when the Lebanese economy started collapsing. The Lebanese pound lost almost all its value, government services including the electricity supply from the national grid, came to a near complete halt. The shortage of supply was basically filled by the diesel generators. It is estimated that in 2016 before the crisis, diesel generators in Lebanon consumed around 1.6 million tons of fuel per year, and emitted around two giga grams of fine particulate matter. This is around 10 times the emissions of particulate matter from the cars in the country. If you just simply scale that each generator in 2016 was running around three hours, now most of the generators run around 12 hours, then we can reach a conclusion that the emissions now around three to four times the 2016 estimates.
As for the transportation fleet, the collapse of the economy means that people are rarely fixing their cars, and they are not buying new cars which are generally cleaner because they run more on efficient combustion and they have catalytic converters and filters and so on. Relying on old cars that are aging at a high rate exacerbates the problem of emissions.
How is that a problem on an environmental level?
Gases and particles that are emitted as byproducts of the combustion process of gasoline and diesel harm the environment in different ways. For example, ground level ozone harms all kinds of plants including trees and crops, sulfur and nitrous oxide lead to acid rain which harms the soil, seeps into the water sources and alters our food chain. On the other hand, greenhouse gas emissions from fuel combustion such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are agents of climate change which as we all know it adversely affecting the whole planet and ecosystems. Also, other pollutants such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter, also result in smog that reduces visibility.
What does that mean in terms of public health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pollution kills around 8 million people every year. Half of these deaths are caused by ambient air pollution. And 90 percent of the world population lives in places where the air quality exceeds the WHO guideline limits. Also, the health burdens of pollution are spread inequitably across the world, where mostly countries in the global south as well developing countries such as Lebanon, suffer the most.
Now, the compound and diverse impact of pollution on health has been documented and it affects almost every single part of our body. Pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide contribute to cardiovascular diseases. Carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ozone, and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides also contribute to respiratory illnesses. Also, there are other pollutants that are known to be probable carcinogens such as volatile organic compounds and so on. Every day you find new evidence of the adverse health effects of pollution, and there are even some studies that are local to Lebanon and are worth looking at.
What could be a realistic solution in the absence of regulations?
There are several things that can be done. We saw in the recent past that if public awareness is done properly and across the board, it can lead to policy change, or change things that were planned. For example, when incinerators that were proposed to get rid of garbage, with some sites in Beirut, the public awareness campaign that was implemented pushed to changing that plan.
We must increase the awareness of the public about pollution. Also, once you inform people about the negative impact of pollution on the environment and health, they will have their own citizen and community initiated solutions. This is particularly important now given the wave of green energy that is mostly captured in photovoltaic solar energy produced electricity.