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Is Toxic Air the Default Position for Our Cities?

Even as the country remains in lockdown questions are beginning to be asked about whether, and how, things may be different when the emergency is finally over. Whilst most of the news is bad, there is one unlooked for but positive outcome to the global lockdown. Air quality in cities all around the globe has improved dramatically. Fewer cars, trucks, aeroplanes and manufacturing industry on shut down have all contributed to a remarkable reduction in pollution levels. Satellite imagery tells its own story as you can see here in satellite images showing massive improvements to air quality over China.

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Satellite animations tell a similar story. Check out the following links:

  1. USA Pollution Levels
  2. Italy

And we can expect locations around the world to show similar drops. This graph shows the recent improvement in air quality in the UK.

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So why is this important, and what lessons can we take from it?

High levels of air pollution and poor air quality are a fact of city life pretty much everywhere from Los Angeles to Delhi. Most cities exceed recommended limits for example in the UK see:

Los Angeles Smog

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New Delhi on a bad day

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What we know is that breathing in small particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide lead and ozone are harmful to health. Environmental pollution can affect the body in different ways:

  • Respiratory diseases.
  • Cardiovascular damage.
  • Fatigue, headaches and anxiety.
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.
  • Damage to reproductive organs.
  • Harm to the liver, spleen and blood.
  • Nervous system damage.

And what that adds up to is an estimated 7 million premature deaths globally each year.

The air in our cities had become increasingly toxic, and it seems that we have all come to accept the situation ( governments included). So, when the world wakes up from its current state, as this pandemic recedes what are the options? Is toxic air in our cities the default position we fall back to or are there alternatives?

More questions than answers

  1. Is it time for the presence of petrol and diesel cars, vehicles to be reduced, even banned from city streets and alternatives to private car use promoted?
  2. Should the development of electric vehicles be accelerated and subsidised?
  3. Should distribution be moved away from diesel burning HGVs and back onto rail networks? Could rail networks cope if that happened?
  4. Will working from home become more attractive both to employers and employees, reducing journeys and pollution levels?
  5. Do business people really need to jet around the world from one conference to another, adding to global warming when they can link up via webinars and online conferencing?

And that is without tackling the issues of pollution from heavy industry which have not gone away.

It has taken a global pandemic to show the world that that bad air and the health hazards that go with it are not a given. However, making the moves needed to promote cleaner air will inevitably involve major changes to the way people and goods move around cities, and with it, real challenges to governments and policy makers.

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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