Cities must be ground zero for clean air

Posted on 07 September 2020

The drop in air pollution brought about by COVID-19 lockdowns has already revealed some of the benefits that cleaner air can bring to our cities. We can build back better, for the sake of human health and our climate, writes Jennifer Lenhart.
According to UN Secretary General António Guterres, cities are ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic; home to 90% of reported cases. They are also responsible for roughly 70% of carbon emissions with almost 90% of urban residents exposed to air pollution: pollution that chokes our city skylines and our lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, aggravating COVID-19 susceptibility and accelerating climate change.

The statistics are staggering; but they need not be inevitable.

COVID-19 has impacted lives and livelihoods, while offering a glimpse of what our cities could look like if they adhered to a different vision. COVID-19 is the great accelerator: exposing existing vulnerabilities in our societies, rolling out shock therapy in the form of sharp restrictions, and providing momentum for change.

Prolonged lockdowns and strict quarantines revealed cleaner skies when industries shut down and cars were taken off the roads. Santiago de Chile reported its lowest air pollution rates in 30 years, providing clearer views to the snowcapped Andes, while the city witnessed a return of much-needed rains. Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon saw pollution drop between 40% and 55% from one week to the next. New Delhi – a city known for its “toxic, throat-searing cloud of brown smog” – experienced its longest spell of clean air in recent history. These gains for our environment and our health should not come at the cost of lost jobs nor economic ruin.

Clear skies for the future

As we build our cities and societies back, we need to do so better, envisioning and creating the kind of cities and societies we want to live in:
  • greener cities powered on local renewable energy – cleaner for our planet and our lungs;
  • integrated cities connected to local landscapes, using nature-based solutions to filter our air and shade our streets;
  • accessible, equitable and inclusive cities – 15-minute cities with most needed essentials in walking or biking distance that also provide local economic stimulus and boost withered municipal budgets;
  • cities with cleaner air for blue skies and healthier people.
These cities are within our reach, but require bold decision-making and new innovations, especially to transition our fossil-fuelled energy and transport sectors.

The good news is cities around the world have already started to act. In Milan, Paris, Bogotá and Kampala, extensive cycling infrastructure has rolled out, to alleviate crowded public transport systems, support active lifestyles, as well as to tackle local air pollution and break away from fossil fuel dependency. Likewise renewable energy systems have become so cheap, the air quality benefits alone would pay for the energy transition.

A health and climate crisis

Fossil fuels are the common culprit in both air pollution and climate change. While climate change may feel complex and distant, air pollution affects us now – and our children bear the brunt of it, due to their rapid breath cycles and increased vulnerability.

COVID-19 provides a wakeup call and a forewarning of greater and compounding crises to come. But we have seen the great attention and coordinated effort granted to this global health crisis. How can this same momentum be harnessed to tackle the connected climate and air pollution crisis? Air pollution, responsible for circa seven million deaths per year, is also an acute global health crisis.

So on this first International Day for Clean Air and blue skies, we call on our city leaders and proactive businesses to envision and create low-carbon and clean air solutions with the impetus to accelerate positive change for healthy people, healthy cities and a healthy, resilient environment.

Jennifer Lenhart is the Global Lead for WWF’s Cities initiative.
Cyclists ride on La Ronda del Sinu, Montería, a bicycle path and long park framed by the biodiversity of the municipality where monkeys, iguanas and other species are seen, under the shade of ancient and tall trees that protect inhabitants from the heat.
© WWF / David Estrada Larraneta