The legacy of lockdown can be cleaner skies

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The legacy of lockdown can be cleaner skies

Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 lockdown, there was one remarkable upside for the residents of Dehli. As they opened their curtains in the morning, the view was clear1, and not cloaked in pollution as they were used to. It was a feeling replicated in cities around the world, from Bangkok to Bogota, as the sharp drop in both vehicles on the roads and peoples' movement led to a temporary slump in pollution.

The clearer skies were a welcome sign of what could be for many city residents but whether the views will remain after the COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted is uncertain. Cities have long been the worst hit by pollution - a look at air quality levels around the world2 shows the density of pollutants in the most populous areas. The latest statistics show that the worst hit in Europe is Milan, Merida in North America and Sydney in Australasia.

And while the lockdowns have led to a short-term cut in emissions and pollution, there has been no impact on the overall levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere3. Air pollution is being refocused on in light of the pandemic as links are drawn between the spread of COVID-19 and pollution

While the lockdowns have led to a short-term cut in emissions and pollution, there has been no impact on the overall levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

As pollution has continued, efforts to tackle it by city authorities have as well, to varying degrees of success. But how can different cities learn from one another? What can London, where the air quality is moderate, teach Kumanova in Macedonia, where it is very unhealthy? It is a change which would immediately benefit the poorest members of society in those countries4.

Here we look at how cities have developed their policies around air quality over the years, what others can learn and how investors can benefit.


London

In the early 1950s, the smog in England was so thick that cows were reported to have choked to death in the fields. In London, buses and taxis regularly ground to a halt, forcing commuters onto the underground tube network. Thousands died as respiratory diseases abounded5. It was the Clean Air Act of 1956 which changed all of this by restricting the burning of coal and establishing clean air areas around the city - the first major act in a series of improve air quality. In the late 1960s, industries burning coal and gas were ordered to use tall chimneys and a few years later came regulation on what fuel for cars should be made up of. Progressive steps to decrease pollution levels in London have led to all new double decker buses being hybrid, electric or hydrogen and all newly licensed taxis must be zero-emissions capable.

…second hand diesel market shrinks and consumers shift more towards electric vehicles

Next year will see the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to include the majority of the city, meaning cars which don't meet tight standards will have to pay at least £12.50  - and £100 for lorries, buses, coaches and other heavier vehicles - every day they are used within the area. It is this move which is likely to spark the interest in investors as the second hand diesel market shrinks and consumers shift more towards electric vehicles.


Beiji

Smog has been synonymous with the Chinese city for years, but it was a report in 2014 which focused minds. A study from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said Beijing was almost "uninhabitable for human beings"6. It was not hard to see why - industrial strength face masks were used by commuters as coal burning and emissions, especially in winter, combined to make the city uncomfortable, a trend repeated in many other Chinese cities at the time. Within four years however, the city had apparently achieved something remarkable - a UN report said that fine polluting particles were down by 35%.

In 2018, new anti-pollution measures were brought in, pressuring heavy industry plants to shut down or limit their operations

This came as ultra-low emissions standards and more advanced monitoring systems were introduced while investment in public transport increased. In 2018, new anti-pollution measures were brought in, pressuring heavy industry plants to shut down or limit their operations.7 While the city has not solved the problem and pollution remains, the shifts by the government have been seen as a milestone in its bid to resolve the issue.


Mexico City

Infamous for the quality of its air in the late 20th century, in 1992 Mexico City was named the most polluted city in the world by the United Nations. Change was already afoot to tackle the problem, with a limit in place on car usage. 'Today you don't drive' used colour coded stickers to take cars off the roads one day each week, reducing the numbers by 20%. After that, lower emissions standards were introduced while public transport was also expanded. In 1995, the ProAire scheme was launched to improve air quality - and is now in its latest stage with aims to reduce energy consumption and promote cleaner and more efficient energy across all sectors. But as other cities have experienced, progress can be slow and frustrating.

…progress can be slow and frustrating

Last year, pollution in the capital reached levels that were potentially dangerous to public health and an environmental emergency was announced after forest fires worsened the situation.8


Delhi

The clearer skies following lockdown will have been a relief to the residents of the Indian city, but there have been measures launched to improve the quality of the air there already. And it is not before time, in 2018 the city's pollution levels were 20 times the limit set by the World Health Organisation's levels for safety. Like other cities before it, Delhi has moved to convert vehicles to cleaner fuels; banned the use of industrial fuel; closed power stations; prohibited the entry of polluting vehicles to the city centre and opened roads to the east and west to take traffic away. And there have been results - PM2.5 particles, one of the worst pollutants, were down by 25%9 in the three years to 2018. However, the problem is far from resolved. At the end of last year, air quality had reached "unbreakable levels" according to authorities. There have now been suggestions that the pandemic, and the subsequent cleaning up of the air, could lead to a kick start in a movement to clean India's air with moves towards a greener economy, a suggestion that will attract the interest of investors.10

There have now been suggestions that the pandemic, and the subsequent cleaning up of the air, could lead to a kick start in a movement to clean India's air with moves towards a greener economy

Learning from others

A look at the daily air quality levels around the world show vast differences in the levels of pollution. Naturally, cities are at different stages in developing solutions to the problem. But the pandemic has given residents a glimpse of what life with smog would look like. The question is whether authorities will now take the opportunity to come back better and work to maintain the clearer skies.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/11/positively-alpine-disbelief-air-pollution-falls-lockdown-coronavirus
2 https://waqi.info/
3 https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/united-science-report-climate-change-has-not-stopped-covid19
4 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/07/cutting-air-pollution-in-europe-cities-would-improve-health-of-poor-says-watchdog
5 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-20269309
6 https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1426587/pollution-makes-beijing-almost-uninhabitable-human-beings
7 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-42513531
8 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-48279972
9 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-49729291
10 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-52313972

 

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