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These five cities are taking aim at air pollution

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Around the world, more than 90 per cent of people breathe in air that the World Health Organization (WHO) considers potentially harmful.

While the source of air pollution varies – some come from vehicle emissions, some from power plants, some from crop burning – the outcome is the same: airborne contaminants are a dire threat to human health.

Every year, they cause about 7 million premature deaths from ailments such as stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer. Many air pollutants, like carbon dioxide, are also potent greenhouse gases that feed climate change.

That has made it all the more important for cities to improve their air quality, said Maria Neira, the Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health with the WHO.

“We need to reconsider the way we consume resources and the way our cities are built. This is at the heart of the future development of our society.”

Many urban areas are beginning to do exactly that. From implementing ultra-low emissions zones to banning cars, here are five cities that are taking innovative steps to clean their air.

1. Paris, France

The French capital has barred the most polluting vehicles from entering the city centre, banished cars from the Seine River quayside and reclaimed road space for trees and pedestrians.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials recorded a significant drop in nitrogen dioxide — a pollutant emitted by vehicles; particulate matter— a potential cause of respiratory disease; and carbon dioxide. To solidify those gains, and give coronavirus-wary residents an alternative to driving, the city also expanded its network of bike lanes. Now, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is aiming to transform Paris into “a walkable city”, where the needs of residents can be met within a 15-minute stroll.

“Air pollution has been improved a lot in Paris,” said Karine Leger, director-general of Airparif, an organization that monitors air quality. “Since there is a link between COVID-19 and air pollution, improving air quality will also be a focal point in the attractiveness of the city for both tourism and economic activities in coming years.”  

2. Seoul, Republic of Korea

Korea has made headlines for its state-of-the-art campaign against air pollution. 5G-enabled autonomous robots scan industrial complexes to monitor air quality, while a satellite monitoring system offers real-time air quality data to the public.

City leaders have also announced plans to create the first “wind path forest” in Seoul, planting trees close together along rivers and roads to channel air into the city centre. The forest is expected to absorb particulate matter and bathe downtown Seoul in cooling breezes. The city has already transformed an abandoned viaduct above Seoul’s main railway station into an elevated arboretum.

By 2030 it hopes to increase green space by 30 per cent and make sustainable modes of transport, such as walking, biking, and public transportation, account for 80 per cent of trips.

3. New York CIty, United States of America

The concrete jungle of New York City is going green. In an effort to improve air quality, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced $1.4 billion in funding for renewable energy projects, including solar plants and wind farms, which will power 430,000 homes. It is the largest single commitment to renewable energy by a state in American history. The projects, which are expected to be in use by 2022, will reduce carbon emissions by 1.6 million metric tons, equivalent to taking 340,000 cars off the road.

In another first for the country, a congestion charge will be introduced for drivers in the Manhattan area. Cars passing by checkpoints in the city’s Midtown area will be charged $10-15. As well as aiming to reduce emissions by keeping cars off the road, the initiative is expected to raise $15 billion that will be reinvested in the public transport system.

4. Bogota, Colombia

With the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, Bogota— like other cities— saw a dramatic drop in air pollution. Encouraged by this, the city has set out a series of initiatives to try to clean up its transport sector permanently, which Mayor Claudia López says is responsible for 70% of Bogotá’s air pollution. The city has plans to impose strict emissions standards on trucks and other heavy-polluting vehicles; develop a fully electric metro rail system capable of transporting its 8 million residents, and add an additional 60 kilometres to the existing 550 km bicycle paths. Since March 2020, the city has added 80 km, which the mayor says are being used constantly.

“We’re going to take advantage of the fact that the pandemic allowed us to speed up this agenda of clean air and pursue different modes of clean and green transportation,” said López.

5. Accra, Ghana

Accra, Ghana, became the first African city to join the BreatheLife campaign, a joint campaign by WHO, UN Environment Programme, World Bank and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, to mobilize cities to act on air pollution.

The city is also part of the pilot of the WHO-Urban Health Initiative. Through it, the Ghana Health Services and the WHO work to encourage a switch from coal-based cookstoves to ones powered by gas or electricity in order to protect mothers and children from household smoke. They also run a sensitization initiative on the health impact of burning waste. According to WHO, if all open waste burning was stopped by 2030, 120 premature deaths could be avoided yearly.

“In our part of the world, air pollution is not prioritized as a health concern – even in the way we cook,” said the Mayor of Accra, Mohammed Adjei Sowah. “But the statistics are so staggering that we have to wake people up to take action. We have to talk about it loudly so that it becomes part of our discourse in the urban political space.”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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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. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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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.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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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.

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