Global urbanization has led to a worldwide growing environmental impact, especially in terms of air quality. The staggering number of early deaths as a result to air pollution outweigh any benefits pollutant industries such as coal and automobiles bring to world economies. The key issue is human exposure to major pollutants within cities and their harmful effects on urban health. Here we explore 5 solutions to improve air quality in cities.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of Peter Hershey via Stock Snap
Around 3 million deaths worldwide were linked to outdoor air pollution in 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths every year in Britain alone.
The largest contributor to air pollution in European urban areas is notably traffic. Particulate matter emitted by vehicles poses a serious health risk to about 85 percent of European city dwellers, according to the EEA.
The more people migrate to cities in the coming years - the more transport would be needed to sustain urban life, increasing air pollution and further endangering the lives of many women and children. Baskut Tuncak, who was appointed by the UN human rights council and completed a 15-day mission to the UK in 2014, said “Children, women of reproductive age, the elderly, and those of poor health are the most threatened by toxic air, with poorer communities often exposed at higher levels.”
In response to the crisis new projects around the UK were awarded a share of 2014’s Air Quality £1 million grant focusing on reducing emissions from road transport. The Grant Programme for 2014/15 has focused on supporting projects set up to tackle nitrogen dioxide levels and mitigate emissions from road transport.
Strategies To Adopt To Improve Air Quality in Your City:
1 | Stricter Testing and Controls On Vehicles
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Nitrogen oxide emitted from cars harms our respiratory systems, and may cause asthma. Diesel cars are said to emit NOx - on average, (even new models) release six times as much nitrogen oxide as gasoline engines.
Given that even new diesel vehicles emit so much Nitrogen Oxide into the atmosphere - stricter car tests and controls are necessary to reduce emissions. Since 2013 Europe has managed to monitor the emission of pollutants from freight trucks and buses, using portable measuring equipment. Passenger cars, however, are not tested on the road which could be the next step towards lowering harmful emissions.
A case study on the car emissions in Durban, South Africa cited the lack of data as a major challenge to air pollution policy development. In response, tests were conducted using passive samplers, which proved effective and affordable for pollution monitoring in most of Durban’s surrounding municipalities. These passive samplers offered a low-cost potential solution for bridging the data gap and improving emission monitoring technology within the country.
The accessibility of emission monitoring technologies in major industrial cities worldwide provides municipalities with enough data to assess the progress of their varied strategies to lower harmful emissions.
2 | Experimenting With Vehicle Bans in City Centers
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Due to the fact that European regulations have failed to meet the objective of World Health Organisation (WHO) in term of air quality and due to an increasing pressure from citizens, environmental organizations, some cities have been developing their own solutions to reduce air pollution. Paris, Madrid and Athens have set out to completely ban diesel cars from city streets by 2025, while other cities have begun implementing temporary diesel car bans to manage smog levels. To incentivize citizens monitor their car emissions, German politicians are reportedly debating a "blue badge" policy that would allow only cars that meet the emission standards to enter their cities.
Another way to tackle air pollution is to join the electric car revolution. Norway is the only country that has fully embraced those new opportunities.It is reported that currently, one out of five cars sold in Norway is battery-driven. With its policies favouring e-mobility, the Norwegian government hopes that by 2025, cars with gasoline and diesel engines will no longer be sold.
China, who’s heavy dependence on coal and its thriving automobile industry make it the world’s deadliest country for outdoor air pollution, according to analysis by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is also contemplating when to ban the production and sale of diesel and petrol cars. China is rumoured to have plans to completely phase out diesel and petrol cars by 2032.
3 | Think About Innovative Design Solutions
Image: AP Photo/Andy Wong
In 2016, Beijing reportedly recorded PM2.5 levels - 17 times greater than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. The same year, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde and his team have responded to China’s air pollution plight by erecting a seven-meter-tall aluminium ‘Smog Free Tower’. The world’s first smog vacuum cleaner was installed in Beijing in 2016. This sustainable innovation is using very little green energy to treat 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour, which collects more than 75% of two kinds of pollutants, PM2.5 and PM10, that contribute to smog.
Studio Roosegaarde shared successful test results reported by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Results showed 55% cleaner air in the vicinity of the Smog Free Tower. Within a period of 41 days, the Smog Free Tower reportedly cleaned a staggering volume of 30 million m3 of Beijing’s air, equaling a volume of 10 Beijing National Stadiums.
The Smog Free Tower has also captured billions of harmful PM2.5 airborne particles during its exhibition time. As a souvenir of clean air, the smog particles collected from the Smog Free Tower in Beijing were used to make a special limited edition of 300 Smog Free Rings, each ring comprises of 1000 m3 of polluted air. In lighter news, many couples around the world have showed their unwavering commitment to each other and urban health by purchasing these limited edition rings.
4 | Creating More Space For Bicycles and Public Transport
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Promoting alternative forms of transportation and mobility patterns can also reduce the harmful effects of air pollution which affect climate change. Many cities are working towards relying less on cars as a mode of transportation and investing in more public transportation and making their cities more accessible for bikes by introducing bike lanes.
Although there is stiff competition for the lead between Copenhagen, Utrecht and Amsterdam, Copenhagen takes the title as the Number One Bike Friendly City Worldwide. According to a 2017 Wired report the city has invested $150 million in cycling infrastructure and facilities over the past decade. It has 16 new bridges for bicycles and pedestrians built or under construction, eight of which have opened since the 2015 Index. Other cities are tirelessly working towards catching up. Paris is working towards reducing car traffic and has inaugurated its first bike highway stretching 0.5 miles which opened in May of 2016. This highway is expected to be extended to a 28-mile network of bike highways that will cross the city by 2020.
But for some cities, like Los Angeles, which is the second largest city by population in the United States, urban sprawl represents a real obstacle to development of a bicycle friendly metropolis. However, due to its extensive public transit system the area has avoided a complete automobile-based culture. The metropolitan area’s 19 transit systems have more than 500 bus routes. As a result, 96 percent of neighborhoods are within 0.75 miles to a transit stop — this is the second highest rate in the country. This allows commuters to catch a form of public transportation from their nearest stop every 6.2 minutes, therefore reducing the reliance and need for personal cars which in turn reduces the air pollution in the city.
5 | Make it green!
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Planting vegetation can have a great impact a city's air quality. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, filter particulates out of the air and help to cool down cities subject to the "urban heat island" effect. A study has found that planting green plants in cities can reduce levels of two of the most harmful air pollutants by eight times, more than previously believed. In towns like Dresden, special walls that serve as beds planted with moss have been set up in order to clean the air. One of these walls is supposed to filter as many particulates out of the air as 200 trees.
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