Reducing air pollution can be as beneficial to human health as to climate change, said experts during a webinar on World Cities Day, convened by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, UN and national government officials.
Air pollution causes some 7 million premature deaths every year, with vulnerable people such as women, children and the elderly most at risk. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to pollutants can lead to heart disease, asthma, diabetes, eczema, cancer and impact brain development in children.
Air pollution is also linked to climate change. If we were to reduce short-lived pollutants such as methane and black carbon, we could reduce global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades, simultaneously avoiding 2.4 million premature deaths. That is why experts believe that as we build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing air pollution will have a benefit on multiple levels of risk factors and health outcomes.
“If we change the structure and planning of our cities to make it easier for people to use bicycles or walk, this will have an impact not only on the air quality by reducing car use but also encourage people to do more physical activity and thereby have a reduction on obesity,” said Nathalie Roebbel, Head of Air Quality and Health at the World Health Organization. “Road accidents could also be reduced.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant if temporary improvement in urban air quality. According to Maria Valeria Diaz Suarez, Quito Air Quality Monitoring coordinator, there was a decrease of more than 50 per cent of PM2.5 during the lockdown months in Ecuador’s capital when the mobility was reduced by 70 per cent.
“This shows us that our policies to reduce [car] mobility would be really positive for our city to reduce PM2.5,” said Diaz Suarez.
The Air Quality Monitoring Coordinator said that in 1914, the residents of Quito depended on an electric trolley-car to get around. The trolley-car ran until 1940 when the government gave way to fossil fuel vehicles. But following worsening air quality, in 1995, Quito brought back the trolley-car and today it makes 240,000 trips per day, which is around 8 per cent of the total public transportation usage in the city. With a commitment to reach the WHO Air Quality Guidelines, Diaz Suarez said Quito plans to create 81 new electric metro cars during 2021.
“We will also be adding more cycling and pedestrian-only streets,” she said.
In London, experts have been monitoring air pollution and found that it can vary much more widely than was previously known —up to 8 times within one city street. Oliver Lord, head of policy and campaigns at the Global Clean Air for Environmental Defense Fund Europe, said that monitoring is about bringing data to life.
“We use monitoring to get things right,” Lord said. “We need to combine action on climate with air quality so we don’t actually repeat the mistakes of the past, such as the issue we face in Europe with diesel emissions or combined heat and power plants in buildings.”
Meanwhile in Accra, Ghana, Desmond Appiah, the chief sustainability advisor to the Mayor, said the city was focusing on the waste sector, as 37 illegal dump sites with waste burning were contributing to a large percentage of the city’s air pollution. Appiah said that by joining the BreatheLife Network, they were able to grasp the number of deaths and non-communicable diseases that were arising from air pollution, which were previously overlooked.
“We realized that the Climate Action Plan that we were developing would be meaningless unless we were able to link it properly to issues of air pollution and air quality,” said Appiah. “If you talk to people about climate change it doesn’t mean much to them – but if you show them that the linkage of air quality to their personal life, now that is when they begin to pay attention.”
The bottom line, said Helena Molin Valdes, head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, is that in the planning and execution of solutions it’s extremely helpful to assess both the air pollutants and impact on people’s health, while at the same time working on the climate and greenhouse gas inventories.
Watch the video here:
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