Healthy Cities | WWF

Air pollution in cities


A massive threat to our health and its solution


Urbanization is currently a global megatrend. Fortunately, cities hold great potential for transforming and becoming more sustainable. Today, our cities house over half of humanity, while occupying only 3% of the planet’s landmass. City residents can use energy and resources more efficiently thanks to population density, which also results in more affordable waste management and sustainable transport solutions.

Today however, 70% of our carbon emissions stem from cities and over 90% of city dwellers breathe polluted air, responsible for millions of deaths every year. Our cities have yet to deliver on their sustainability potential.


The air pollution-climate change connection

Today, 9 of 10 people on the planet breathe polluted air. The air quality is often particularly poor in urban areas due to traffic jams and high buildings that trap the air. Our children are especially vulnerable. Their hearts beat faster and they breathe more rapidly, leading to relatively greater intake of polluted air. The effects of air pollution can be severe and may be responsible for as many as 8.8 million premature deaths every year making it the biggest environmental threat to human health. That would be the equivalent to 500 deaths every 30 minutes. Approximately 65% of so called outdoor air pollution is caused by fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are also responsible for up to 75% of our Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Halving emissions every decade

We are causing multiple problems through our fossil fuel dependency, but the good news is that all these problems share the same solutions. For example, to combat the worst effects of climate change scientists suggest the halving of carbon emissions every decade. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy by harnessing the wind, sun and waves is a big part of the solution for reaching this goal, which also aligns with the Paris Agreement for the climate. Such measures will simultaneously spare millions of lives every year as a result of improved air quality. WWF’s One Planet City Challenge assists cities in this energy transition.

The switch to an active and renewable lifestyle

The single biggest contributor to outdoor air pollution is traffic, and as much as ¾ of our transport emissions come from short journeys in and around cities. Luckily, we have solutions and they come with hefty benefits for you.

A bike can take you 8 km in 30 minutes, with an electric bike that reach is extended to 12 km in just half an hour. Biking has many health benefits such as less stress, protection against diseases, increased productivity, better sleep etc. Travelling by public transport pollutes much less and often leads to more physical activity than driving. And if you are car-dependent switching to an electric car is much healthier for both you and the planet.

Cities can massively influence citizen behavior by investing in mobility infrastructure. In some cities 75% of journeys are already made sustainably, and in some over half are indeed made by bike.





Streets for People and Nature

As we urbanize, the most valuable asset in a city is land, which emphasizes the need for creating dense cities rather than allowing urban sprawl to continue. Dedicating 50-60% of our downtowns to roads, as we do currently makes very little sense. Even a fleet of electric cars occupies a great deal of precious space, and many cities are starting to limit access for cars in downtown areas – resulting in more livable cities where people reclaim the streets while connecting with others. Additionally, by freeing up land, we can invite nature to move in. Research shows that access to green areas is key to lowering our stress levels, and yet it is estimated that only 13% of the population have enough access to urban green. Of course, trees offer other key benefits as well as they provide oxygen, cleanse our air and help to absorb carbon. After all, in just 30 minutes you will take approximately 450 breaths. 

Wouldn’t it be great with more low-carbon cities and with streets for people and nature?!  Learn how to make that happen in our report 30 Minutes Can Change Your World!