Dublin has become the first Irish city to join the BreatheLife campaign and commit to meeting WHO air quality guidelines by 2030.
The leaders of the four municipal councils that make up the Dublin region— Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council— signed up to the campaign, agreeing to work together to achieve the goal.
While the region does not have a clean air plan, many of the actions in the Climate Change Action Plans released by the four regions last year have potential positive impacts on air quality, along with other healthy co-benefits.
Among these are developing the district heating systems, including the largest such system in the country, to provide low-carbon heat to households; increasing municipal staff access to bicycles, e-bikes and e-vehicles; retrofitting social housing to boost its energy efficiency; converting public lighting to LEDs; developing new cycle networks and other active mobility-friendly initiatives; and examining the potential of a landfill to generate green energy.
The plans, whose goals include generating 40 per cent of electricity consumption from renewable energy sources by 2020, focus on energy and buildings, transport, resource management, nature-based solutions and flood resilience.
Dublin’s climate change and sustainable growth priorities are reflected in its current City Development Plan (2016-2022), across core planning areas including mobility and transport, the built environment, housing and land use decisions, and the next development planning cycle kicked off in early 2020.
The current plan’s vision includes “a zero carbon City with all energy coming from renewable sources”, near zero-carbon building standards, less dependency on private cars for routine trips, more public transport, walking and cycling instead, for example, all in the interests of maintaining high liveability in this rapidly growing city.
The Dublin region leaders admit that reaching their climate and clean air goals won’t necessarily be a walk in the park.
“Hitting the target in the BreatheLife campaign will involve difficult and potentially unpopular decisions,” Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Tom Brabazon, told the media.
“So we’ll all need to be brave if we’re to make the right decisions for our city,” he said.
But pioneering potentially unpopular decisions in the name of cleaner, healthier air are hardly unfamiliar to the fair city; its efforts to beat infamous smog in the 1980s are established in the global track record of clean air success stories.
Then, the culprit was bituminous coal, burnt in homes everywhere in Ireland to heat water and warm homes against the wintry chill; air quality had dropped that decade when households switched over from the more expensive oil.
In 1989, a journalist from the Dublin Journal famously described the result: “The smog creeps menacingly through doors and windows here. It attacks throats and lungs. It sometimes invades Dublin to such a degree that night appears to fall by midday.”
The smog was recognized as a driver of a spike in winter respiratory deaths in the city.
By the next year, the “smoky coal” ban came into force in Dublin, forbidding the marketing, sale and distribution of “smoky” coal.
It wasn’t perfect; in some areas in which it was eventually rolled out, people simply bought coal from outside the borders of the ban. But it had dramatic impacts: average black smoke concentrations in Dublin dropped by 70 per cent after the ban; the six years after the start of the ban saw respiratory deaths fall by over 15 per cent and cardiovascular deaths by 10 per cent compared to the six years before the ban.
Now, Dublin’s air pollution challenge looks different. Its main worry in recent years has been rising levels of nitrogen dioxide, the product of increasing road traffic.
A report released last year by the national Environmental Protection Agency found high nitrogen dioxide levels in certain spots in the city, particularly locations with heavier traffic, which may be over limits set by the European Union.
These included some streets in the city centre, a busy main motorway, and the entrance and exit to the Dublin Port Tunnel; away from these places and in residential areas, however, the EPA found significant drops in nitrogen dioxide levels, which stayed well within recommended EU limits.
Nitrogen dioxide inflames the lining of the lungs and can reduce immunity to lung infections, causing problems like coughing, colds, flu, bronchitis and wheezing. Breathing in elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide raises the likelihood of developing respiratory problems. It also contributes to the formation of smog.
The report provides examples of measures other European cities use in their efforts to bring down their nitrogen dioxide levels, including promoting alternatives to private vehicle use, like public transport, cycling and walking, expanding the network of electric vehicle charging stations, and establishing low-emissions zones— measures that are already part of the city’s development and climate plans, alongside others designed to protect the vulnerable.
“We have already acted in Fingal to improve air quality with programs like the School Streets initiative which has already reduced carbon emissions outside of a primary school in Malahide,” said Mayor of Fingal, Cllr Eoghan O’Brien.
“I call on all residents in the Dublin region to be ‘Climate Brave’ as we implement similar programs and take the necessary decisions to reach the BreatheLife campaign targets,” he added.
“Protecting the environment in our part of Dublin and mitigating our local impact on climate change has been a cornerstone of our policies in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown in recent years, whether it is improving our biodiversity, moving toward eliminating pesticides use, constructing low energy usage buildings or expanding our EV fleet,” said An Cathaoirleach of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Cllr Shay Brennan.
“Like the other cities involved in this important campaign, our Council will continue to promote policies, actions and behaviours that align with BreatheLife goals and improve the air quality for people who live and work in our area,” he said.
Dubliners can now check on that air quality (and noise levels) at various spots in their city, in real time, through a new website hosted by the Dublin City Council.
Tackling air pollution is rising in the national agenda, too; Ireland is currently developing its first National Clean Air Strategy.
The commitment to the BreatheLife campaign sees Dublin once again forge ahead on air quality efforts within its ongoing efforts to keep its region liveable for its growing population.
“By signing this commitment, Dublin is joining with cities and regions around the world in saying we want to be ‘Climate Brave’ and we want to set an example for others to follow,” said the Mayor of South Dublin County, Cllr Vicki Casserly.
“Dublin is the first city in Ireland to sign up to the BreatheLife campaign but I am sure that we won’t be the last,” she added.
Read the press release: Dublin Hosts Major ‘Climate Brave’ Conference
Follow Dublin’s clean air journey here
Banner photo by William Murphy/CC BY-SA 2.0.