Improved Kiln Technology Delivers Environmental Benefits and Drives Generational Change in Pakistan's Brick Sector

by CCAC secretariat - 12 October, 2021
Pakistan has converted 8,000 of its 20,000 brick kilns to a more efficient “zig zag” technology, a major achievement in a country where the economy depends on this heavily polluting industry.

Efforts to clean the air and protect the climate are ushering in transformational change in Pakistan’s traditional brick sector, improving efficiency and reducing costs for owners, protecting workers, and formalizing a once unregulated industry. In a relatively short time Pakistan has converted 40 per cent of its brick kilns to use more efficient, cleaner technology, reducing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) and improving the country’s air pollution while mitigating global warming.

“The kiln sector’s transformation has been really remarkable,” said Bidya Banmali Pradhan, the Programme Coordinator at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organization working on air pollution in the region. “The value of what we’ve accomplished is huge.”

Pakistan joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) in 2017 and since then has been working with the Coalition and ICIMOD to train brick entrepreneurs and raise awareness of these cost effective and scalable kiln improvements in the brick production process.

Traditional brick kilns with towering chimneys emit black smoke across Pakistan, contributing to air pollution, climate change, and a host of serious health problems.  Much of the harmful black soot blasted out by the brick kilns is due to inefficient burning of coal. 

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A tradional brick kiln in Pakistan belches black soot-heavy smoke into the air.

Zig zag technology— stacking the bricks in a zig zag pattern instead of straight line— converts the brick kilns by better insulating the walls and the floors. This method changes the way coal is loaded to redirect the air flow, which leads to better, more efficient fuel combustion and increases energy efficiency. A zig zag kiln can reduce the coal needed by 20 per cent.

“I converted to cleaner zig zag technology firstly to make the environment better by reducing our carbon footprint for future generations,” said Rana Ali Asad, who has run a family brick kiln operation in the Gujranwala Cantt area of Pakistan for the past four years. He’s received training from ICIMOD on the technology, with the support of the CCAC. “Secondly, we converted for the financial benefits which can save costs by up to 30 per cent or more.”

Improving brick kiln technology is so important because the 120,000 brick kilns scattered across South Asia spew black carbon (or soot), a powerful climate forcer. Black carbon is a component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a dangerous air pollutant anywhere, but it's climate forcing properties have a particular impact on the Himalayas, where it falls on ice and snow, reducing reflectivity and instead absorbing more heat. This leads to increased melting and contributes to the fact that the region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. One report found that even if the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century is met, the Hindu Kush Himalaya region would still experience 2.1 degrees of warming. This would melt a third of the region’s glaciers, which over 1.65 billion people rely on for water. 

Converting to zig zag technology can reduce black carbon by 60 per cent and particulate matter by 40 per cent.

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Climate-smart agriculture in Pakistan and National Planning in the Maldives

Overall, the brick industry contributes 20 to 25 per cent of global air pollution. In South Asia, particulate matter pollution has contributed to a reduction in life expectancy of one year and seven months in the region. However, despite the sector’s negative impacts, it also makes up 1.5 per cent of the country's GDP and employs almost 5 million people, making efforts to stem its environmental damage while preserving jobs and economic opportunities crucial. 

Private Sector Partnership

Given its informal nature and a sector-wide resistance to outside intervention, working with the brick sector has been traditionally difficult. The CCAC, ICIMOD, and Pakistan’s government have worked to bring entrepreneurs, government, and other stakeholders to the same table to hammer out a better future for the sector.

“Bringing the brick kiln owners and the policy makers together in one platform to discuss the issues was really effective,” said Pradhan

One effective strategy was to inform kiln owners about the potential economic benefits from moving to cleaner technology.  Zig zag kilns have the potential to save 6 million tons of coal, a huge financial savings for owners.

“We tell them that environmental compliance and laws will increase their fuel efficiency and decrease their fuel bill,” said Muhammad Irfan Tariq, the Director General of Environment & Climate Change at the Ministry of Climate Change. “There will be less emissions, which is good for the environment, and the bricks will be of better quality, which is good for their customers.”

Asad agrees and says that, as a pioneer in the region, he’s convinced more than 200 kiln operators to start using zig zag technology. The benefits make it an easy sell, he says.

“It’s eco-friendly as well as cost-saving, so it increases profits while helping the environment.”

With the help of the CCAC, the Federation of South Asian Brick Kilns Association (FABKA) was created to help strengthen the sector and improve communications between stakeholders across the region. FABKA includes the Brick Kiln Owners’ Association of Pakistan (BKOAP) and also coalitions from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh who, as a result of the regional coalition, are now meeting regularly to synthesize and support broader action. With the support of ICIMOD, FABKA has drafted a constitution and created a roadmap for transforming the sector. In the upcoming years, the association will be able to function independently. 

Another challenge in facilitating this transition is that, while long term zig zag technology can save producers a great deal of money, the conversion requires an upfront investment that can be prohibitive for brick kiln producers, many of whom are operating on a thin margin.

“We need 100 per cent more investment in the existing business to convert to zig zag technology. Almost double the labour is required,” said Asad.

In some cases, the Punjab government has provided loans to brick kiln operators to make the transition but more funding is needed to help producers make these important changes.

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ICIMOD and FCDO with BKOAP launch the cleaner bricks project at a newly designated showcase kiln in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo credit: ICIMOD

Loans are a viable solution because in the long term, brick kiln operators save significant amounts of money by converting. Asad says that savings depend on the volume of the kiln but range from 3-10 million Pakistani Rupees every year (approximately $18,000-$60,000).

A Just Transition, With Government Support

Pakistan’s efforts also contribute to what Tariq called a “just transition,” helping to bring the brick kiln operators into the formal sector. This means they transition from being an unregulated, informal sector unregistered by any government institution to being taxable entities which increases government revenue while making kilns eligible for tax credits for environmentally friendly changes. 

“There was no formal brick industry in Pakistan, it was all informal operators scattered all over Pakistan in rural areas with very limited environmental and social compliance and huge gaps in terms of following the laws,” said Tariq. “Now, we have facilitated change in the brick kiln sector from an informal to a formal sector and their compliance with environmental laws has followed.”

The lack of regulation in the sector meant large numbers of children worked in brick kilns— a 2012 report estimated that 250,000 did so. In 2016, however, the government passed the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act. The formalization of the sector has helped enforce that legislation.

The adoption of new policies in recent years has helped spark change in the sector. The Environment Protection Department of Punjab issued a notification that allowed zig-zag kilns and banned the construction of new brick kilns using outdated and polluting technology.

From October to December 2018, the government shut down outdated brick kilns allowing only converted kilns to operate. This sparked a change that dramatically increased the number of converted kilns.

This work, funded by the CCAC, has catalysed further action and funding, multiplying its effects.  In June 2021, ICIMOD and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)  launched a demonstration project and inception workshop: “Towards cleaner brick production in Pakistan’. Its goal is to continue to build the capacity of public and private stakeholders to transition to cleaner brick technology. ICIMOD and FDCO will also install two demonstration kilns in Punjab that replace polluting firewood with cleaner liquified petroleum gas. As this work continues, it helps to guarantee that the effects of change will be felt for generations to come.

Pollutants (SLCPs)