Improving Air Quality

Air Quality Map

Air Quality Map, Friday 10th April 2015

Last Friday the air quality of parts of the UK was pretty bad, and over much of Europe it was worse. Even here in Hereford, where it wasn’t so bad, I was coughing, the air smelt weird, and the sky had an ominous haze. Globally poor air quality kills a lot of people: 3.7 million due to outside pollutants from factories, power stations and traffic, a further 4.3 million due to poor indoor air quality, mainly due to cooking over wood, charcoal and dung fires, and a further 6.0 million due to smoking. Plenty of other things humans do cause unnecessary deaths: road traffic accidents 1.24 million, alcohol misuse 3.3 million, illegal drug use 0.2 million. These are all examples of the steady annual unnecessary death toll: warfare and infectious diseases cause huge episodic death tolls.

I’ve always believed a safer, healthier and happier future is possible for all humanity. There are plenty of grim news stories to show how far we have to go, but there are also many examples of success. Banning coal fires did end the ‘pea souper smogs’ of post war London, strategic long term investment in health and education has dramatically lifted life expectancy and prosperity in Singapore, recent elections in Sri Lanka and Nigeria were good news for the spread of democracy. This blog is called ‘Global Problems: Global Solutions’ for the simple reason that I believe that there are, at least theoretically and technologically, solutions to many if not all the problems facing humanity. A growing number of people around the world share this vision: Avaaz’s membership has grown to 41 million, but of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. The question is, has humanity the political will to really tackle the big problems together. In cooperating effectively we might find we can tackle multiple problems simultaneously and produce multiple win-win situations.

Delhi and Beijing are two of the cities with the very worst air quality, but most of the world’s major cities suffer poor air quality at times. Recent announcements from the Indian, Chinese and other governments are sounding like they intend to take action. Over London we now measure a thousand different chemicals and particulates to better understand the nature of the problem. What we need to see emerging is a race between the world’s major cities to see who can clean-up local air quality fastest, and in the most beneficial way. Many of the solutions are very obvious: more walking, cycling and better and cleaner public transport and fewer cars, especially fossil fuelled cars. Tougher emission rules for factories. Shutting coal fired power stations and replacing them predominantly with renewables. All pretty obvious stuff, and beginning to happen, and of course all having multiple benefits for human health, local air quality and also, and almost incidentally, climate change.

All statistics are from relevant World Health Organisation Factsheets