air pollution

Air pollution is killing millions, what are cities doing about it?

Author | Esther Fuldauer

As cities get more crowded our air quality is getting so bad that is actually lowering the life expectancy of those who live in them. In the world nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year.

Burning fossil fuels for energy is the worst cause of air pollution in cities. The level of pollutants in Europe is so high that it is a major cause of death, only second to smoking. Researchers found that in Europe air pollution caused an estimated 790,000 deaths, mostly from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and stroke.

Poor air quality is unfair, as it affects the most vulnerable populations living and working in the inner city. Children, the elderly, people with debilitating conditions such as asthma, and outdoor workers are the most exposed. Children risk their lung development at early ages, developing long term ill health and premature death. It has also been shown that there’s a direct correlation between air quality and cognitive abilities which get lower the longer one is exposed.

In short, it is a serious health and equity issue which also contributes to and is also exacerbated by climate change. After governments repeatedly failing to meet the challenge, cities around the world are stepping up and taking action.

To clean the air from dangerous pollutants cities are adopting different strategies which include restrictive policies, raising awareness, monitoring air quality and placing air filtering devices in public spaces.

Air quality monitoring

air pollution

 Bettair maps air pollution in cities based on a large deployment of gas sensors and using an advanced post-processing algorithm. This sort of information allows city officials to take the necessary measures when a bout of air pollution hits the city and allows to make smart and better decisions to mitigate air pollution in the long run. Bettair is a network of autonomous devices that are installed in streetlights or in city furniture in a closely knit network. An APP to keep citizens informed is also provided. The technology has been tested in 8 European countries and in New York City.

Air purifier devices that remove contaminants

StaticAir Pamares, which stands for Particulate Matter Reduction System, is a solution developed to reduce particulate matter or fine dust in open air public spaces and which is integrated with street lighting and placed as a cuff around the post.

air pollution

CityTree is a moss-based biotechnological filter system which is able to bind fine dust, oxides of nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. The CityTree delivers real-time data about the its environment and information of its performance and condition. It’s completely self-sustaining system with built-in water, automatic irrigation, nutrient supply a solar panel that provides it with energy. It can come with a bench which also makes it a beautiful piece of street furniture.

While these solutions may sound like far-fetched, they are real and viable products. StaticAir has deployed its Pamares in countries such as the Netherlands, while the cities of Oslo and Modena, among others, have already tried GreenCity’s CityTree.

Electrification of public transport and congestion pricing

Yet the most challenging part is behavioral change and the necessary measures must be taken to help curb the situation in the short-term and the long-term.

One obvious place for cities to start is transitioning public transport fleets to clean technologies. Old diesel buses are being replaced by hybrid or electric in cities around the world. Schenzen’s bus fleet is now completely electric, becoming the largest electric bus fleet in the world with 16,000 buses. Barcelona is replacing its whole bus fleet for hybrid, electric and gas. From 2017 to 2020, the city will have saved 27,880 tonnes of CO2.

Traffic restriction policies in city centers, lowering the maximum permissible speed or temporary restricting areas to only pedestrian and sustainable mobility such as bicycles are other action protocols cities are taking.

Congestion pricing is a tool that cities around the world such as New York City are starting to implement. The idea is to charge drivers a fee to enter the busiest parts of a city. The money is then used to bolster public transportation. This approach results in lowering traffic congestion and air pollution and raising awareness.

air pollutionAnother outstanding example of policies is London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), considered the most restrictive in the world. The policy puts in place minimum emission standards for all vehicles. Cars and vans driving within the restricted zone need to meet the ULEZ emissions standards or else their drivers must pay a daily charge.

The Spanish capital is already pursuing this approach in aggressive fashion through the Madrid Central strategy, which bans the most polluting vehicles from the city’s core. The system is enforced by means of police checks and environmental stickers that allow zero emissions, hybrid and modern ICE (internal combustion engine) cars while leaving out pre-2000 gasoline and pre-2006 diesel ones.

As awareness grows on how people contribute to air pollution, it will reduce the causes of air pollution and they will also take measures to protect themselves. With the combined use of these tools, technology, policy, monitoring and air filtering, cities will start to see better results in lowering their emissions and cleaning the air we breathe.

Images | GreenCity, Sam Wermut, DanielleTunstall, JurgenPM