Back to school, not to breathing dirty air

by Barbara Stoll and Zoltán Massay-Kosubek

In April this year, as countries went into lockdown, many got to see and experience a rare occurrence: clear blue skies. In many European cities, the lockdown allowed city dwellers to see, smell and feel much cleaner air. In Paris, the air was cleaner than any time during the past 40 years, and the inhabitants of Milan reported being able to clearly see the nearby Alps. Overall, official data and independent analyses showed that toxic air levels fell by up to two thirds in major European cities.

Today, as we celebrate the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, we have the chance to make this anomaly of clean air a tangible reality of the ‘new normal’. A recent survey in 21 European cities showed that, 64% of respondents did not want to go back to pre-pandemic pollution levels. The survey also found that an overwhelming majority (74%) agreed that cities must take effective measures to protect citizens from air pollution, even if this requires reallocating public space. 

Despite public sentiment in favour of cleaning up the air, pollution has already bounced back in many European cities during the summer. According to a recent analysis, Paris, Brussels and Milan have all experienced significant rises in toxic air compared with their lows during the lockdown. In some cities like Budapest, pollution even exceeds the pre-pandemic levels, mostly due to a rise in congestion and traffic.

Clean air is a basic human right and yet air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, responsible for 7.6 per cent of global deaths annually. In fact, data shows that air pollution shortens lifespans, on average, by two years. Its social and economic costs are extremely high as air pollution causes costly chronic diseases which put considerable burden on our healthcare systems

Air pollution from burning fossil fuels can make the COVID-19 pandemic even worse by overwhelming health care systems that are already under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic. Health experts have also warned that those living in polluted cities are more at risk from COVID-19. And research tells us that epidemics like COVID-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the air is a wise investment for a healthier future. 

This is what healthcare professionals recommend too. Earlier this year, 40m global health professionals launched a call to action asking world leaders to invest in public health as part of recovery plans. The WHO launched a manifesto that included supporting clean air policies for a green recovery and medical professionals themselves are raising their voice to tackle transport pollution specifically. 

Clear skies showed us a window to our future; the challenge now lies in finding a sustainable way to meet people's expectations and protect public health. Putting the large sums of COVID-19 recovery funding into zero emission solutions is vital to put us on the right track. 

Every euro spent—whether at EU or national level—shall accelerate the transition to mobility that protects the climate and our health, namely emission-free infrastructure and vehicles, that see their sales surge in Europe despite the pandemic. And as the summer break ends and schools reopen, it is also crucial to maintain and expand new infrastructure for walking, cycling and micromobility, especially around schools. Sustainable and active mobility initiatives have begun to change cities in Europe and around the world. Almost 1,100 km of new cycle lanes have already been set up across Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include ‘pop-up bike lanes’ in Berlin and new cycling infrastructure and wider bike lanes in Krakow. Brussels is transforming its city centre, expanding car-free zones to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. 

The lockdown period of this pandemic was an important reminder of the value of clean air and proof that it’s still possible to achieve. This International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies should be the kick-off of a clean air drive as set out in the EU’s "zero pollution ambition" of the European Green Deal. Let’s not make this a day we need to observe for decades to come, but rather one we can happily abolish very soon, in the new normal.

Barbara Stoll is campaign director of the Clean Cities Campaign at Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport group that campaigns for a zero-emission mobility system.

Zoltán Massay-Kosubek is policy manager for Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), Europe's leading NGO alliance that federates public health organisations, including patient and population groups, health professionals and disease groups.

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