I have spent time in many polluted cities, from Cairo and Beijing, all the way to Rome and London. Yet, nothing really prepared me for the air pollution I experienced in New Delhi recently. It’s gotten so bad that the local government has resorted to using anti-smog water mist cannons in parts of the city to try and blast out air pollutants. Innovative as it may be, it seems to be more of a band-aid solution to a life-threatening problem.
Delhi may not be the most polluted city in the world – I believe that dubious honor goes surprisingly to Zabol, Iran for its high particulate count from dust storms – but it’s certainly up there. And with a population of more than 26million and growing, I fear for the health of India’s citizens and, for that matter, those living in cities the world over.
Cites have long been great melting pots. They are places of ingenuity and innovation, and have allowed economies of scale and resource efficiencies to be achieved. Moreover, cities with strong public health measures and medical systems have prolonged human life and well-being. In fact, people living in cities generally enjoy better health than people in surrounding rural areas because of greater access to medical care. But these achievements are being undermined by air pollution.
Today, cities have become more like stewing pots. The shift from biofuels to fossil fuels – a process that comes with industrialisation – has had a significant impact on pollution and health, not only due to CO2 emissions, but also because of the particulate matter released into the air. Coal, used in electricity generation and large-scale manufacturing, is the most polluting fuel, but vehicle fuels are also highly toxic.
It is predicted that over 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. That doesn’t leave much time
Air pollution stands out as the most severe in terms of its impact on health. The World Health Organization reports that more than one billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution annually, with more than 80% of people living in cities exposed to unhealthy air. In developing countries, 98% of urban areas fail to meet WHO air quality guidelines.
Such exposure has contributed to the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world. According to the 2017 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths in 2015, accounting for 16% of all deaths worldwide – three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.
As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them. That’s the bad news. The good news is that with better urban planning – that includes energy-efficient buildings, improved public transit, green and open spaces – cities can aspire to much better air quality and dramatically improved human health.
There are already some encouraging signs. The International Energy Agency, for example, says that by 2040, 60% of our electricity is likely to be green, with 715 million electric cars on the road. And according to the Energy Transitions Commission, by 2030 a power system based almost entirely on variable renewable energy generation is likely to be lower cost than a fossil fuel-based system, even without a carbon price. Research by the Coalition for Urban Transitions has also shown that investing in compact, connected and efficient cities could substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3.7 Gt CO2 per year by 2030 and generate savings of as much as US$17 trillion by 2050.
These are just some of the goals and aspirations of the Paris climate agreement and the international sustainable development agenda. The challenge will be to ensure they are adopted at the local level, from city to city. It is predicted that over 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. That doesn’t leave much time for cities to clean up their act and their air.
Dr. Doaa Abdel-Motaal is the Executive Director of The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School