Toxic air is killing us. These five policies could save millions of lives

Around seven million deaths every year are caused by air pollution

Air pollution filling the atmosphere

When the Great Smog of London engulfed the British capital in December 1952, some 4,000 Londoners died, and tens of thousands developed chronic respiratory issues. But the crisis also galvanised the British government into landmark legislation. 

In 1956, legislators passed the Clean Air Act, restricting the combustion of coal in urban areas and granting councils the power to designate smoke-free zones in their boroughs. Pollution plummeted — thanks to better policy.

Today, smog hasn’t evaporated so much as migrated. Rapid industrialisation in areas of the global south has created toxic megacities like New Delhi which, in 2018, recorded levels of pollution so high the city couldn’t measure it. 

An estimated seven million deaths every year are caused by air pollution. But like London’s mid-century moment of reckoning, government can intervene with dramatic success. Here, we take a look at five of the most innovative air pollution reduction measures from around the globe.

1) People power 

Air pollution can spike with little warning — and without the population being aware. While many cities monitor air quality from fixed locations, such data fails to provide government with a more granular understanding of pollution levels from street to street at different times of the day.

In Denver, Colorado, Google has teamed up with environment intelligence firm Aclima to place low-cost sensors on the cars it uses to map street views. That allows it to provide maps of air pollution as well as roads, cities and landmarks. 

In Mexico City, citizens can access real-time air quality data wherever they live. 

But London is going even further, with plans to make use of crowdsourcing. The Clean Air in London project hopes to recruit thousands of Londoners to carry low-cost sensors around the city, providing detail and reach that fixed sensors can’t. 

The project aims to build a high-resolution analysis platform, helping the city to understand shifts in air pollution and even predict them. 

2) Cooperation with business over coercion

In South Asia, brick kilns are some of the worst polluters. In Bangladesh, some two million tons of firewood are burned in kilns every year, despite the practice being illegal since 1989.

In Pakistan, a new administration has tried cooperating with local business, negotiating a two-month winter shutdown in 12 districts across the country rather than an outright ban.

Coupled with loans to encourage kiln owners to use more fuel-efficient technology and fines to penalise the worst offenders, Pakistan might be en route to cleaning up its act. 

3) Reconfigure the roads

Madrid’s clean air plan is among Europe’s most ambitious. 

Legislators voted to close the city’s main artery, the Gran Via, to car traffic, expand the provision of bike lanes and widen pavements. Madrid is also cleaning up its public transport by investing heavily in electric buses. 

But Madrid didn’t just enforce these measures on an unwilling population. A vote among residents showed overwhelming support for the policies, albeit with relatively low turnout. Engaging citizens helped fuel reform. 

4) Invest in public transport

Last summer, Estonia became the world’s first nation with a free public transport system. Designed to cut down on car use while improving mobility for the underprivileged, today Estonians can travel from one end of the country to another entirely free-of-charge. 

So far, results have been mixed. Some data suggests that free public transport is largely being used by people who would have ordinarily walked to their destination. 

Other cities might soon follow the Estonian lead: Paris is consulting on free public transport, as are five smaller German cities. 

5) Designing out pollution

Air pollution is firmly on the agenda of architectural innovators around the world. 

In Italy, the concrete used to build this research lab literally eats smog. 

Another designer from the Netherlands wants to build towers that guzzle carbon from the atmosphere to make gemstones while purifying the air. 

Graduates from MIT Media Lab are instead hoping carbon capture devices fitted to cars could extract carbon from fumes that could fill the world’s pens and printers with ink. 

While these solutions aren’t going to eliminate toxic air just yet, future policy and practice depends on experimentation today. Blue-sky thinking could mean blue-sky living for the next generation. — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Pexels)



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