2020 brought cleaner skies. Can it stay that way?

Barbara Stoll — December 21, 2020

Perhaps it takes an extraordinary moment in history to finally radically rethink how we all move around.

In 2020 we faced an unprecedented global crisis that affected most aspects of everyday life: our work, our economies and our health. The pandemic has also had a profound impact on our expectations around travel, and we’ve learnt – perhaps the hard way – that in many cases, we don’t need to share a physical space to work together and to get things done. 

So despite the immense difficulties the pandemic posed on our collective societies, there have been silver linings – clear skies, for example. Lockdowns across Europe have allowed city dwellers for the first time to see, smell and experience cleaner air. And to appreciate slower and local living with less noise and congestion.

In Paris the air was cleaner than at any time in the past 40 years and residents of Milan reported being able to clearly see the Alps. This experience was similar in many other cities in Europe and across the world. Communities woke to a new reality that didn’t seem possible only a few months before. And we know that they are ready to hold onto it. A vast majority of residents from 21 European cities support measures to give more public space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, as well as to ban dirty cars from city centres. 

The pandemic also highlighted the interconnectedness between our societal and environmental systems. It has become clear that society’s resilience depends on addressing structural inequality at the same time as addressing climate and environmental challenges. Road transport is one of the fastest growing sources of transport emissions in the EU since 1990, with air pollution disproportionately impacting disadvantaged urban communities. The ability to protect ourselves from a myriad of crises in the future rests heavily on shifting our urban environments away from polluting carpocalypses, while simultaneously addressing inequality.

Cleaner and greener cities can support healthier and improved quality of life for a greater part of society. This is precisely why we started the Clean Cities Campaign to harness this widespread public momentum for change by compelling Europe to end the era of the internal combustion engine (ICE), finally moving away from the age of oil.  

Despite the opportunities and great progress, there are some troubling slides backwards. We face a European public deeply concerned about the safety of public transport. We’ve seen low-emission zones (LEZ) delayed across the UK and parking fees lifted in Budapest, leading to traffic-clogged streets and a spike in dangerous levels of air pollution. Yet despite this, many cities have implemented hundreds of kilometers of new walking and cycling paths, including Brussels, where 40km of bike lanes have been rolled out along some of the city’s busiest roads, and where cycling is up 44% since 2019. Milan added 35km of additional cycling paths and Paris has invested €20 million to boost cycling in the city.

The change we want to see will not happen automatically. A more expansive and braver approach from local and national governments will be critical in avoiding a slide back into the pre-covid status quo. Our challenge now is to build on the momentum and excitement around what our cities could become — sustainable, smarter and more inclusive. We are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work to make it happen.

Related Articles

View All