Connect with us

Green Planet

The most polluted capital in Europe, you didn’t even know about

Published

on

“Mama, why do I have to wear this again? It hurts my mouth,” says Norik, 5, to his mother, Igballe, before she puts a small, child-size air pollution mask over his face.

Igballe Ferati, a finance specialist, makes the usual walk to a local kindergarten every weekday with Norik along the streets of central Skopje, a city which often experiences dangerous levels of air pollution.

“I am really scared about the health of my child and I always check the pollution levels on my phone via the MojVozduh [MyAir] app before going outside. Especially in winter when the air pollution gets worse, I can’t let Norik go out, and I know some parents who don’t even allow their children to go to school on certain days, so they are not exposed to the air pollution. We are locked in our houses with air purifiers hoping that this will not affect the health of our children in the years to come,” says Igballe.

“We are forced to tell the children that they are superheroes to put on the masks. It is too difficult and sad to explain this situation to a child.”

Skopje, a city of more than half a million people, located in the centre of the Balkan peninsula in southern Europe has been listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) amongst the cities in Europe with the highest concentration of harmful fine particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the air.

Particulate matter 2.5 includes a variety of components such as nitrates, sulphates, organic chemicals, metals, dust and black carbon, which pose a risk to human health. Due to their small size, they penetrate the lungs and are known to cause heart, lung and other diseases.

The latest data released by the World Health Organization in 2018 shows a PM 2.5 annual mean level of 40 micrograms per cubic metre in Skopje—four times the recommended levels of 10µg/m³.

In terms of mean concentrations of both PM 10 and PM 2.5, the World Health Organization Ambient Pollution Database for 2018 ranks Skopje as Europe’s most polluted capital city.

Moreover, Skopje suffers spikes in air pollution. To take one day as an example, on 13 November 2018, the European Environment Agency rated the Skopje municipality of Karpos as having “very poor” air quality. It registered 104.6µg/m3 of PM 2.5 – more than 10 times the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

The organization estimates that 2,574 people die prematurely in the country annually because of air pollution.

Causes of the Skopje air pollution

The city’s pollution has been blamed on a mix of coal burning, fuel oil and wood burning stoves in households, open waste burning, emissions from aging industry and old, highly-polluting vehicles.

In particular, the city has been reliant on lignite coal for heat during winters – a leftover from the Yugoslav era.

Many Skopje residents cannot afford to move to cleaner, more sustainable forms of heating and thus rely on cheaper, more polluting ones, such as wood.

The geography of Skopje, surrounded by mountains, means that the polluted air is effectively trapped. Skopje is particularly affected by pollution in the winter season which has contributed several times to the closure of the city’s airport.

“You can feel a sour, metallic taste in your mouth when the air pollution levels get high,” says Hristijan Gjorgievski, a Skopje office worker.

The unanswered call for solutions

Numerous public protests have taken place in Skopje and in a city in the north of the country, Tetovo, calling for state action against air pollution in those areas.

“While there has been much talk of the damage that climate change is doing in the long term, we need to look at the damage that air pollution is doing now, to Skopje and to the people who live there,” says Ana Čolović Lesoska, from Eko-svest (Eco-sense), a non-profit organization that advocates for environmental protection. “A lot of people have had enough of inaction on air pollution and civil society across the country is rising up to force change.”

On days with high air pollution in the city, Skopje authorities deploy emergency measures such as days off from work for pregnant women, those over 60 years of age, and people suffering from chronic asthma and related conditions. The city has previously offered free public transport and cancelled sporting events.

However, the root causes of pollution still need to be addressed. The city encourages people to move away from polluting heating systems such as wood-burning stoves to pellets and is considering car scrappage schemes for older, more polluting cars. If households burned cured wood instead of young, wet wood, that would also reduce smoky emissions.

“An integrated approach is really necessary and there is not going to be a ‘silver bullet’ for cities like Skopje,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme is centered around designing cities for pedestrians, to make it easier for those who walk and cycle while trying to reduce people’s reliance on polluting vehicles.”

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development approved a US$13.5 million project to upgrade Skopje’s older diesel buses to low-emission, compressed natural gas buses. The government itself approved a US$1.8 million programme in November 2018 to tackle air pollution.

Given that household heating accounts for 32 per cent of the city’s air pollution, the United Nations Development Programme’s office in Skopje works with national partners to design cost-effective solutions to reduce air pollution caused by polluting heating systems.

“I am really scared of what the long-term health effects on children growing up in Skopje might be,” says Igballe. “My family and I have to get away from the city on the weekends in search of clean air. This affects our lives and budgets heavily.”

“What is clear is that if the authorities don’t react timely with a structured and serious approach towards the reduction of air pollution in the city, then the consequences for families living in cities such as Skopje are going to be severe.”

UN Environment

Continue Reading
Comments

Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

Published

on

Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

Continue Reading

Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

Published

on

Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

Continue Reading

Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

Published

on

Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending