Smog Cities

By: Anders Vestergaard Jensen, Senior Analyst, Monday Morning Global Institute, Twitter

Breathing is life. It’s automatic – we do it without noticing even when we sleep. It’s not a question of whether you breathe, but what you breathe. Breathing fresh air can no longer be taken for granted in all parts of the world. Transport is partly to blame. In mega cities all over the world everybody with a pay check wants to drive a car. It emits particles into crowded urban spaces close to homes, playgrounds and work places. The small particles are difficult to see but they rob many lives. It’s a great risk – air pollution.

Time to step on the break

Historically, economic growth has been closely coupled with transport – if the economy was increasing, so was transport. This is not a sustainable development path. It has been on the agenda for politicians, transport planners and academia to de-couple economic growth and transport for long now. For some countries, this has been more or less achieved, but for others the almost explosive economic growth and population growth have made it close to impossible to deal with an increase in transport.

Last year it was reported that Delhi surpassed Beijing as the most polluted city in the world – a top ranking that I am sure Delhi would like to be without. The number of cars on the streets of Delhi grows by 1,400 a day! Many of the cars are only equipped with the mandatory basic emission-cutting apparatus, which adds massive amounts of air pollution to the city’s poor air quality due to the burning of rubbish, industrial emissions and pollution from surrounding coal-fired power stations.

Both Beijing and Delhi are struggling with bad air quality – however, there are big differences between the two cities. See this great visual of the differences, which goes some way in explaining why Delhi might be stuck with a bigger problem than Beijing.

In India air pollution is the second biggest killer, after heart diseases, with 1.3 million deaths yearly. This has huge impact on the whole population, but especially children are more at risk. A recent study show that more than 1/3 of school going children in India suffer from poor lung capacity with pollution being one of the major contributing factors!

Air pollution is not just a problem in Delhi and Beijing, but also elsewhere in the world. Recently the authorities in Paris and London had to intervene to reduce air pollution from cars. In Paris cars were only allowed on the roads every second day. In the UK air pollution across the country sparks warning from health charities. Even if we enforce high standards for emissions for vehicles, as the case is for the EU region, it will not alone solve the problem.

It has been estimated by the WHO that air pollution robs European economies of 1.6 trillion USD annually due to illnesses and deaths. It only goes to show, that having the issue on the political agenda for years is not a magic bullet – the problem persists.

Getting out of the car

The aim of visiting the eight Opportunity Panels is to gather inspiration on how to turn this risk into an opportunity – first and primarily for society, but certainly also for business (please see here for definition of opportunities). With the massive impacts air pollution has on the economy and health many initiatives are already out there. One strategic way of addressing the challenges with increasing demand for transport is to look at how we can avoid, shift or improve transport. Avoid refers to the need to improve the efficiency of the whole transport system – avoiding making the polluting trips, taking a systemic approach. Shift is about changing your mode of transport partly or entirely e.g. by riding a by-cycle or using public transport. Improve is about increasing the energy efficiency of transport e.g. using more energy efficient cars.

A recent study in Denmark found that if commuting a distance of less than eight kilometres half of the car trips can be replaced with trips using an electric bicycle. In China electric scooters are widely used and will contribute to reducing local air pollution. It goes without saying that it is best if the electricity is generated by sustainable resources such as solar and wind (see how we addressed the risk of lock-in to fossil fuels in the Global Opportunity Report from last year).

Beginning to use a bike in urban areas with bad air quality seems to be a hazardous choice. But it is possible to adapt cycling in urban areas to avoid the dangerous air pollutants by using smart measures like an app that redirect cycling routes.

The driverless car is currently a hot debate and it certainly has the ability to be a game changer. Driverless cars (combined with public transit) can cut traffic by 90 percent in urban according to report from the International Transport Forum (OECD). On top of that large urban space will be made available when parking facilities will no longer be needed to the same degree.

The journey from risk to opportunity

In the beginning of June I will travel to two of the most polluted cities with regard to air quality – Delhi and Beijing. The visits are part of the Global Opportunity Network project, which turns risks into opportunities based on a global analysis. One of the risks this year is accelerating emissions from transport.

Eight Opportunity Panels will point to opportunities that can make cities breathe again. Some opportunities will be high tech ‘game changers’ and others will be low tech and low cost. Follow the hunt for opportunities here on the website and join the conversation on Twitter using the #GlobalOpportunity hash tag.

Text by: Anders Vestergaard Jensen, Senior Analyst, Global Opportunity Network
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and is not to be associated with the Global Opportunity Network or the partner organisations or individual members of the network.

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