Countries and cities doing the best for cleaner air

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Countries and cities doing the best for cleaner air

Dirty air is not an impossible problem. Beth Gardiner writes about some places working for cleaner air.


Credit: Berto D'Sera

Deaths go up as air pollution goes up. But every small improvement in air quality brings health benefits almost immediately.

So, how do we clean up our air? Here are some of the world’s success stories. None are finished, but their progress shows what is possible.

LOS ANGELES: Following the law

LA’s slow progress to healthier air is part of a bigger US story. It began with the 1970 Clean Air Act.

The 1970 Clean Air Act is why air quality in the US is much better than in Europe. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to enforce it. The Clean Air Act gave government power to get polluting industries to take action. The EPA could enforce action. 50 years of progress have saved millions of lives.

LA’s ozone pollution is still the country’s highest but it fell by more than 60 per cent from 1980 to 2018. Over a period of 13 years progress on particle matter and nitrogen dioxide led to a 20-per-cent reduction in asthma in children.

Los Angeles had a more serious problem than the rest of the USA. Los Angeles and California are the home of US car culture and they made extra efforts to help the country. They asked for better pollution controls on trucks. They introduced plug-in power so freight ships can turn off their engines in port. They restricted the use of toxic dry-cleaning chemicals, and much more. When I was researching a book about global air pollution, I heard one thing again and again from the people of LA: in the past you couldn’t see the mountains around the city. Now, you can. Today, Los Angeles’ progress, and the country’s, are at risk as Trump is ending pollution rules and giving the EPA a lot less power.

But the lessons are clear. Regulations led by science are the most powerful way to protect public health.

CHINA: particle pollution goes down

Not long ago everyone knew China had very dirty air. It still has a serious problem but things are changing fast. The change started in 2011, when the people of Beijing noticed pollution readings from the US Embassy were a lot higher than readings by the Chinese government. This started public anger on social-media and leaders saw how the people were feeling about pollution. Progress has stopped and started because of political and economic pressures. But the overall progress is clear: in Beijing, particle pollution is 60 per cent less since 2010. Change started with national air-quality monitors and making data public. Next, the government made factories remove toxic chemicals. They capped the use of coal and made the world’s biggest investment in wind and solar power.

Now, they’re putting big money into electric cars and buses. China’s size means that this investment will have effects around the world. The cost of electric vehicles will go down and technological progress will be faster.

China will reduce its use of coal a lot sooner than it promised. This is good news for the health of its people, and for the climate. But in other countries it’s a different story. China is financing big new coal-fired power plants with the biggest project in history.

UTRECHT: Supporting bikes

The Netherlands is famous as a wonderful place for cyclists, but it wasn’t always like that. In the 1970s, there were as many cars as in other countries in Europe.

But activists were angry about the number of traffic deaths, especially among children, and started a big campaign to make cycling and walking a lot more important. The changes are a very big success for city air and the quality of life. One study found that cycling stops 6,500 early deaths every year and adds six months to Dutch people’s lives.

The city of Utrecht is now third, after Copenhagen and Amsterdam, on the list of the world’s cities most friendly to cyclists.

Utrecht has protected bike lanes and cycle routes. The city is building the world’s biggest car-free district for more than 12,000 people. It also has a big bike-park for 12,500 bicycles, under the train station.

Utrecht is now looking after the needs of people, not cars. Space for parking polluting cars is now for recreation. In a city of about 360,000 people, officials think there are 125,000 bike trips a day.

ECUADOR: Cleaner cooking

Smoky cooking fires are a big killer in much of the Global South, They kill nearly four million people every year.

Ecuador has been taking action. A long time ago it gave people natural gas and money so people could pay for it. More than 90 per cent of households now use it. Gas has a carbon footprint but it is a lot healthier, and because the old, smoky fuels produce so much soot, the effect on the climate of changing to a fossil fuel may be small.

Now Ecuador plans to move households away from gas and to electromagnetic induction stoves, powered by plenty of renewable hydroelectricty.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)