We live in an urbanizing world that is facing multiple challenges of sustainability, security, economic vitality, and simply getting along with our neighbors. As we look back at the history of mass industrialization in many societies — although many countries are still progressing through this disruptive stage of development — we can take a longer term perspective of the horrendous environmental impacts on many generations of citizens, as well as our urban and rural fabric. Visual examples of air pollution are demonstrated by the layers of dirt that have been removed from many of our historic buildings and the resulting revelation of “clean” buildings.
Much of the impact of pollution has been as a result of waves of industry and resource extraction and processing, but much is also as a result of our lifestyle choices and, in particular, the choices that we have made in terms of mobility. However, vast improvements have been made over the last few decades in reducing the impact of these processes on our environment. Few would argue that our air, and water, isn’t fundamentally healthier than it has been in many decades.
Nevertheless, due to factors, such as increasing technical abilities to measure pollution, understanding its health impacts, an ongoing focus on the “quality of life,” and “active modes of transport,” particularly in our otherwise increasingly more habitable cities, the quality of our air is becoming an increasing issue across Europe, in particular in the larger cities and conurbations. This is also likely as a result of perhaps some clever political and social lobbying by “environmental champions” and the broader debate about social and economic sustainability and the choices that we are making as societies. Within a European context, the sensitivity was likely heightened by the differences in pollution standards between Eastern and Western Europe after the fall of communism. When many Eastern European countries joined the European Union, the consequences of many years of weak and ineffective pollution standards were very obvious and policymakers could take a view on continent-wide air quality issues and impacts.
As in many, if not most, environment issues across Europe — which largely ignore urban, regional or national borders and are part of the economic and competitive landscape of the community, issues of pollution and particularly air pollution are now typically discussed and agreed at a European Union level and implemented by the states. Thus, there are specific standards on air pollution — particulates, various gas emissions, etc., as well as targets, often quite ambitious, to reduce these levels in stages over a number of years. The Commission is also supporting and funding initiatives and research to address most aspects of creating cleaner environments. In addition, industry is tasked with directly reducing pollution from various sources via specific targets, such as carbon emission reductions, as well as “Euro” standards for transport engine emissions, which are being made more restrictive over years for substances like nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates. We are currently operating in a target new vehicle standard of Euro VI, with further toughening of the standards pending. There are numerous other standards across industry that are also being deployed by the EU across the community.
Thus, while pollution has been taken to the supranational level within Europe as an issue that is meant to be dealt with on an ongoing and systematic issue over a number of years, it has also been used as a local issue in cities across the Union as a topic of local political activity and often intense campaigning by local groups and political parties.
For many people, it remains hard to understand the quality or impacts of air pollution on their daily lives. The air remains cleaner than it was a generation ago and not as polluted as it seems to be other locales in the world — for example, in major Chinese cities. People typically can, unfortunately, get used to living with poor air. Occasionally, there are specific episodes of demonstrably polluted air, but these seem to be periodic and can be often “explained away” by freak weather occurrences, such as in European context, “sand being blown in from the Sahara.” Some specific locations seem to have very polluted air near major roads, non-electrified railways, industries, etc. But away from these things, it doesn’t seem as bad. Thus, it is not often seen as a number one, or even a priority, issue for many voters.
However, there is growing evidence that pervasive poor air quality is dangerous, regardless of the improvements that have already been made. Estimates of the health impacts attributable to exposure to air pollution indicate that PM2.5 concentrations in 2012 were responsible for about 432,000 premature deaths originating from long term exposure across Europe.1
These issues have been, and are being, persistently raised by politicians, sometimes, electorally, very successfully, across Europe.
A few examples are outlined below:
In Paris, a new mayor has recently been elected, who has a particular focus on cleaning the air in the city. Anne Hidalgo had focused her campaign on change and accelerating the focus on the air pollution issues in Paris and its region. It is a region known for its extensive public transport systems, as well as one of the early adopters of modern cycle hire (Velib) and car hire (Autolib) usage. It is also not known for its extensive heavy industry, but like most metropoles the size of the urban area, mix of remaining industry, and transport emissions, as well as the geographic shape of the area in a bowl of the Seine river valley, has led to a series of severe air quality alerts over the last few years. The most recent was in late summer 2016.
The previously stated increasing public sensitivity to such issues has led to calls for political and practical action and opportunities for political mobilization. Actions now being implemented in the Paris region, include bans on private vehicles in selected areas, bans on vehicles of selected ages in central Paris during high pollution events, future bans of whole categories of more polluting vehicles, the above mentioned car and bike sharing schemes, progressively reclaiming the banks of the Seine River from an earlier urban motorway role, free public transport on “problem” days, and a significant increase in public transport investment — particularly in suburban Paris. On the latter item, the region is currently progressing the €35 billion Euro “Grand Paris” scheme of new metros and rail extensions.
Another interesting case study is in the Spanish capital of Madrid, which is the third largest urban area in the EU with a population of over 6.5 million. Madrid rests high on a hot and dry plain in the center of the country, with atmospheric conditions leading to high levels of pollutants, such as ozone. The city has not historically been known for actions to significantly tackle the level of air pollution. The city has been ranked as one of the most polluted in the Union.2 More action is being called by several agencies and campaign groups.
Madrid’s actions are also focusing on legally binding and progressive restrictions on the type and quantity of vehicles and access to central area parking, as a result of pollution levels reaching certain “set problem levels over multiple days.” While the city region has invested heavily over the years in developing its public transport solutions, as well as more recently in walking and cycling initiatives, it is not on the levels being seen in the French capital.3
Another example is in my home city of London. London has been systematically failing air pollution targets set by the European Union for many years. As a result, the city, or in practice the UK government, will ultimately be subject to a large fine by the EU — a part of the legislation around air quality targets — that the Union has agreed.
London’s local and city-wide governments have been progressing numerous trials and initiatives to “clear the air” over a number of years, such as via the increasing Euro emissions standards in the public transport bus fleet, as well as hybrid engines and electric vehicle trials, somewhat chaotic promotion of electric vehicle networks, and huge investments in the general public transport and cycling networks, and declaring, in 2008, the London area as a “Low Emission Zone” and thus, progressively banning certain high polluting commercial vehicles. This also complements the existing Congestion Charging Zone in central London where charges for the most polluting vehicles have systematically been raised over a number of years. There are potential plans for an even more restrictive emissions “Ultra Low Emissions Zone” from the 2020s.
Nevertheless, for example, most of the circa 20,000 black cab fleet remains based on polluting diesel technology, while tentative trials continue on rolling out zero-emission taxi technology that could substantially clean the air across the city.
The use of air pollution as a political focus has again been brought into focus by the recent decision of the UK government to allow the building of the third runway at Heathrow airport in late October 2016. The hugely controversial and long-awaited decision is being challenged, legally and politically, by a range of local authorities, advocacy groups, political parties, and individuals on its basis of breaching the UK’s commitment to EU air quality targets, as well as carbon emission reductions.
All of these major cities are also debating, trialing, and seeking other innovative in-situ and design technologies and concepts that could capture or reduce harmful emissions. These include greater tree planting regimes, green walls, innovative street designs and layouts, new types of pavements, and road surfaces, bespoke air filters and other technologies. However, none of these seems destined to offer anywhere near the capacity to reduce the absolute levels of pollutants that are produced by a large urban area to a satisfactory level, and certainly not over the near future.
The quality of our air is increasingly an issue of concern in Europe. Even though much has been done to improve this historically, the public is becoming very sensitive and seeking improvements. Events such as the 2015 scandal at Volkswagen, where one of the leading and most-respected industrial and commercial organizations in Europe was found to be cheating in emissions testing in the US and also Europe and thus, not necessarily delivering the expected ever cleaner vehicles assumed by regulators and consumers, only reinforce the sense that this remains an area of deep concern. Leading European cities are delivering increasing stringent polices to improve air quality, largely by restricting the numbers and types of vehicles allowed in central areas, and more widely, but still much more will need to be done to meet the public’s ever increasing expectations.
- Air Quality in Europe – 2015 Report; European Environment Agency, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
- “Ranking Overview – City Rankings”, for the Soot Free for the Climate, BUND e.V. Am Köllnischen Park, Berlin, Germany.
- “Madrid to ban all cars from center if pollution reaches critical levels”, 21 January 2016, El Pais, Madrid, Spain.
Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.