Urban lifestyles have much to recommend them—but exposure to toxic air conditions is one distinct disadvantage of city living.
Concerns about soaring levels of air pollution, and the serious implications they have for public health, are increasingly being felt all across the globe. And little wonder why: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution counts as the world’s biggest environmental risk to health and leads to millions of deaths annually. A paltry 1 in 10 urbanites, meanwhile, lives in a city that meets WHO’s clean air guidelines.
It’s clear that combatting smog, tackling particulate emissions, and fostering cleaner air are some of the key challenges facing cities in the 21st century. From Delhi to Paris, New York to London, Beijing to Barcelona, emissions-combatting technology and public policies are being trialled and unveiled the world over. Thankfully, many recent developments are set to make significant breakthroughs, making cities more liveable for all.
London has been an unfortunate poster child for cities battling stark pollution rates. Since 2010, the city’s poor air quality has regularly exceeded legal limits, often by enormous margins. This year, the capital reached its annual limit at the very end of January…leaving 11 months of excess air quality problems yet to contend with.
However, there are signs of positive change afoot (that January 30th limit, for instance, is actually a marked improvement on previous years’ records, when legal limits were met in as little as five days). Mayor Sadiq Khan has been a vocal proponent of enhanced anti-pollution measures; his Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) plan, unrolled in October 2017, levies an additional £10 daily charge on older diesel and petrol models driving within the Congestion Charge zone, and his low-emission bus zone scheme has improved air quality along the most polluted routes literally overnight.
What’s next for London’s famously high pollution levels? Khan’s ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez)—the first of its kind—will extend further throughout the capital from April 2019, and will take aim at heavily polluting vehicles. And while numerous other British cities also suffer from poor air quality, a court ruling in February will now mandate that urban areas which exceed legal levels of air pollution must develop concrete action plans to meet the challenge.
If Sadiq Khan has as yet been unwilling to ban diesel from London’s roads, then Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo has shown no such qualms. Following the news that Paris will host the Summer Olympics, she recently announced an intention to phase out all diesel vehicles in time for the 2024 Games—as well as all petrol vehicles by 2030, a decade ahead of the French national goal. Paris is additionally considering further radical policies, including the possibility of free public transit designed to make private vehicles less appealing, and which would potentially be financed by a toll similar to London’s T-Charge. The city has already held several “no car days” that offer a preview of a cleaner future.
For many years, you couldn’t conjure images of the City of Angels without also drawing to mind its thick blanket of grey-yellow smog. Los Angeles’s reputation for dirty air led to sweeping changes; pollution levels are now down more than 75% compared to previous highs of the last 50 years. Much work has focussed on curbing emissions, and a sweeping overhaul to the city’s public transit system could be hugely promising. Last year, the Clean Air Action Plan, which takes aim at the nation’s largest port complex (and SoCal’s heaviest polluter), was also unanimously passed, which should help keep the skies of Los Angeles blue.
Delhi ranks amongst the world’s most polluted cities, and images of the Indian metropolis cloaked in white smog are commonplace. That makes the Indian government’s recent landmark aim to cut pollution by 50% in the next five years all the more remarkable (and urgent, considering that upwards of 1 million deaths were estimated to be caused by air pollution in the Subcontinent in 2015). Delhi is being taken as a model city for this new initiative, which comprises everything from planting scores of trees to funds for new impact studies, air quality forecasting systems, and other initiatives. On a hyperlocal level, the city has also recently tested water cannons as a method of combatting pollution, though some experts doubt their efficacy.
In a move that bodes well for city-dwellers of all stripes, these cities’ initiatives are only the beginning of anti-pollution urban innovation. Both Copenhagen and Oxford have announced impending bans on diesel and petrol cars; innovative cladding that neutralises toxic NO2 has been installed in Mexico City and Berlin; Milan and Turin have banned cars on certain days to avoid exceeding annual clean air limits; New York has instituted strict new laws against idling engines; cities from Barcelona to Oslo are cutting down on stretches of road that are accessible to vehicles; and Beijing’s air quality showed signs of improvement following Chinese efforts to reduce coal dependency.
Now, Sadiq Khan—in partnership with Sampath Raj, the Mayor of Bengaluru in South India—has also launched the progressive C40 Air Quality Network, a global partnership of up to 20 cities bent on tackling air quality issues. Urban pollution is a trenchant issue of our times, but with cities around the world bent on changing the status quo, the future is beginning to look a little brighter.