Your city could be exporting deadly air pollution – here’s why

industry-1752876_1920

Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being.

300 million children are currently breathing in toxic air

Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health. And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.

Exporting emissions

Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.

But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22% (762,400) of air pollution-related deaths worldwide. In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 762,400 of air pollution-related deaths worldwide.

International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.

Making the switch

So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.

There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20% to 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.

Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70% of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.

There’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere.

There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.

Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.

This article was first published at The Conversation

Take a deep breath – What we learnt about air pollution in 2016

 

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAfBAAAAJDgxZjFlMDk5LTE3M2ItNDBmYS1iZjc4LTJiNjZjMTRlMmE3Yg.jpg

Beijing, LondonMexico CityNew Delhi and Paris are among the cities that have drawn attention for their dangerously high air pollution levels in 2016 – but they’re not alone. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that 92% of the world’s urban population now live in cities where the air is toxic.

In India, a study found that 41 Indian cities of more than a million people faced bad air quality on nearly 60% of the total days monitored. Three cities – Gwalior, Varanasi and Allahabad – didn’t even manage one good air quality day.

Over on the African continent, dirty air was identified as the cause of 712,000 premature deaths – that’s more than unsafe water (542,000), childhood malnutrition (275,000) or unsafe sanitation (391,000).

In Europe, it was found that around 85% of the urban population are exposed to harmful fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which was responsible for an estimated 467,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries.

It’s not all bad news though: 74 major Chinese cities have seen the annual average concentrations of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, decrease since 2014 although the Chinese government’s “war on air pollution” has received criticism.

Health risk

The health impacts of air pollution are well documented; but now, new evidence suggests a link between air pollution and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, with exposure to poor air quality equivalent to passively smoking six cigarettes a day. Not only that, toxic air has been blamed for more road traffic crashes from pollutants distracting drivers, causing watery eyes and itchy noses.

It is often poor, young, old and disadvantaged people who are worst affected by poor air quality. Air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 600,000 children under the age of five every year. Ethnic minorities were more likely to be exposed to high pollution levels than other groups. In London, black, African and Caribbean people were exposed to higher illegal nitrogen dioxide levels (15.3%) because of where they lived, compared to the rest of the city’s population (13.3%).

Air pollution also affects regional climate, which impacts on future water availabilityand ecosystem productivity. Black carbon is a particulate matter created through the burning of fossil fuels (such as diesel) and biomass. As well as effecting human health, it is responsible for glacial melting in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau. Black carbon deposits on snow and ice darkens surfaces, resulting greater absorption of sunlight and faster melting.

Research from the World Bank estimated that the global economic cost of air pollution-related deaths to be US$225 billion in lost labour income (in 2013) and more than US$5 trillion in welfare losses. The OECD predicted that global air pollution-related healthcare costs will increase from US$21 billion in 2015 to US$176 billion in 2060. And by 2060, the global annual number of lost working days that affect labour productivity is projected to reach 3.7 billion – it is currently around 1.2 billion.

Air creative

A number of creative ways of understanding and addressing the air pollution problem were seen throughout 2016. In London, racing pigeons took to the skies equipped with pollution sensors and a Twitter account, to raise awareness of the capital’s illegally dirty air. Amsterdam carried on the bird theme, with smart bird houses that light up to show the air quality status, while offering free Treewifi.

Other innovations included the development of an inexpensive over-the-counter inhaler that protects the lungs against air pollution, and the installation of a seven-metre tall tower in Beijing, which sucks pollutants from filthy air.

Raising awareness of the causes and effects of air pollution is important, as we are not only victims, but also contributors to the problem. There have also been many air quality monitoring projects to engage citizens on air pollution issue such as “curious noses”, which saw Antwerp residents measure traffic pollution and “clean air zones” in North Carolina, US, where individuals measured particulate matter in real time.

We’ve also seen awareness lead to action, when the demand for clean air led to ClientEarth taking legal action against government failure to tackle illegal air pollution. Meanwhile, artists in London produced their own campaigns, aimed at warning young people of the effects of poor air quality.

Change is in the air

This year the UN’s New Urban Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Breathe Life Campaign called for action to improve urban air quality and deliver social, environmental and economic co-benefits.

Meanwhile, Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens have pledged to remove all diesel vehicles from their streets by 2025, while promoting walking and cycling infrastructure. In Asia, a city certification programme is being piloted to encourage cities to make advances in air quality management.

If anything, 2016 has showed us that poor air quality is a scourge of the developed and developing world alike – and that it requires immediate action. The evidence is clear: we need to clean up our act, to protect human health and reap the benefits of clean air for all.

This Article first appeared in The Conversation

Back On The Agenda: Acting Locally and Thinking Globally to Achieve Clean Air

The majority of us now live in cities.

While urban living provides benefits with regard to mobility, accessibility and community, it has come with a cost to the air we breathe. An estimated 92% of the world’s population now living in areas where air quality exceeds World Health Organization limits causing as many as 3 million deaths a year.

In particular, many developing world cities are grappling with the combined pressures of urbanization, motorization and industrialization and climate-related weather events which are overwhelming the natural resilience of urban ecosystems.

Given these multiple challenges what action can cities take to achieve clean air, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implement the New Urban Agenda and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Recognizing the Problem

Air pollution is a silent killer.

It is the deadliest form of pollution and the fourth leading risk factor for premature deaths worldwide with both indoor and outdoor air pollution responsible for an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6% of all global deaths). Nearly 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with nearly 2 out of 3 occurring in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions.

It is often the poor and socially marginalized that suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating air quality with around 300 million Children currently exposed to toxic air that exceeds internationally limits by at least six times.

300 million Children are currently exposed to toxic air.

It is easy to read such figures with a detached concern. However, if just one of these faceless air-pollution-related deaths was our mother, brother, sister, daughter or son we would soon feel the devastating emotional and personal impact caused by air pollution.

If that was not enough, air pollution also comes with an economic price tag. The World Bank estimate air pollution related deaths cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labour income in 2013. The OECD predict that global air pollution-related healthcare costs will increase from USD 21 billion in 2015 to USD 176 billion 2005 in 2060. By 2060, the annual number of lost working days, which affect labour productivity, are projected to reach 3.7 billion (currently around 1.2 billion) at the global level.

While reductions may be achieved for certain pollutants others are becoming more difficult to address due to the absence of a well-developed infrastructure, integrated planning and financial resources to restore environmental quality. Therefore ambitious action is required to achieve reductions in the human and economic cost of air pollution.

 Cities For All

In recognition of an increasingly urban world and the need to achieve sustainable development in practice two UN global agendas have been adopted which sets out a pathway to a more sustainable future for all.

The 2016 UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda acknowledges the challenges of an increasingly urban world and sets out a road map for building cities that can serve as engines of prosperity and centres of cultural and social well-being while protecting the environment. It aims to:

  • Provide basic services for all citizens
  •  Ensure that all citizens have access to equal opportunities and face no discrimination
  •  Promote measures that support cleaner cities
  • Strengthen resilience in cities to reduce the risk and the impact of disasters
  • Take action to address climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions
  • Fully respect the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons regardless of their migration status
  • Improve connectivity and support innovative and green initiatives
  • Promote safe, accessible and green public spaces.

The 2015 New Urban Agenda is seen as an extension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) needed to make the transition towards a low carbon society.

The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals provide the road map to a Sustainable Future

Although air pollution is included in both the New Urban Agenda and the SDGs, it is not necessarily prominent. Yet many of the local actions taken to improve urban air quality can have multiple social, environmental and economic co-benefits.

Acting Locally, Thinking Globally

Although the exact origin of the phrase, Acting Locally, Thinking Globally, is disputed, it is often associated with the environmental movement which used it to urge individuals to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities and cities.

Like many slogans it had its prominence only to go out of fashion. Yet, given the air pollution and climate change challenges we face it is more relevant now than ever.

The notion of Act Locally, Think Globally is more relevant than ever given the challenge of poor air quality and climate change

Major sources of air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and lead) include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities.

The majority of these activities are undertaken at the city level which are responsible for around 70 per cent of global greenhouse gases. Equally, we have seen climate-related weather events such as storms; floods and heatwaves impact on the urban populations and disrupt services.

While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long-term; short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon, a primary component of particulate matter, methane and ozone have warming influences in the near-term.

Taking action on these pollutants have the potential to improve air quality and reduce the effects of climate change. Local measures such as reducing car use, improving public transport, increasing energy efficiency and adopting low emission technologies can result in health, environmental and social co-benefits.

 Role of the Citizen

It is easy to seen urban dwellers simply as casualties of poor air quality but they are also contributors to the problem. Therefore the attitudes and behaivour of citizens are important to instilling change and ensuring local policy-makers take the necessary action.

Citizens have a role to play in monitoring air quality.

Public participation in all matters related to the urban environment is becoming an important issue. The talents and support from different sectors of society is needed if we are to improve the air the breathe, tackle climate change and ensure a sustainable development. Goal 16 of the SDGs acknowledges this by calling for responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making at all levels.

Citizens have a role to play in monitoring environmental change as well as being agents of change in their community. There are many examples of citizen-led air quality monitoring schemes such as the UK Friends of the Earth which are encouraging citizens to take action to monitor air quality where they live.

The World Health Organization and Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Breathe Life campaign aims to mobilize cities and individuals around the world to protect human health and environment from the effects of air pollution

However, raising awareness does not always translate into sustained behaviour change and a improvement in air quality. We are complex beings fraught with contradictions. While we like the idea of a clean and green environment that is fine as long as it does not inconvenience us by requiring a change in the way we live.

Selling the Sizzle

If cities are to achieve better air quality then we require setting out a vision that inspires citizen action. To some extent this is a marketing job which requires selling the sizzle of a clean and green city.

US Marketeer, Elmer Wheeler, coined the term “Don’t Sell The Steak – Sell The Sizzle” to inspire people to buy a product. Selling the steak is boring but selling the smell, taste and associated lifestyle inspires consumers and catches the imagination.

We need to set out a vision for citizen action on air pollution.

The same principles are relevant for achieving cleaner cities. If we talk simply about action to reduce emissions such as banning cars or creating low emission zones these are the ‘Steak’ and are far less appealing than the sizzle of a safe, clean and accessible city for all.

Both the New Urban Agenda and the 2030 SDG Agenda set out that vision, it is now down the cities to harness citizen power to make this vision a reality. A guiding principle must be act locally, think globally as this will lead us closer to  greener inclusive cities where we all can breathe clean air.