Clearing the air – a tale of two cities

In December 2015, pollution causing smogs in Delhi gave it the worst air quality of any city in the world. It was exactly 63 years since the ‘Great Smog’ of London, estimated to have killed up to 12,000 people, which led to the UK’s Clean Air Act of 1956.

So is clean air just about growing conventional wealth and economic development? Apparently not. In 2016, decades after London was meant to have cleaned up its act, the High Court ruled that government plans to improve air quality were “woefully inadequate”.

The relationship between pollution and our bodies is a complex one. It increases our risk of getting lung cancer and it’s bad for our heart and blood vessels. There’s a strong link between air pollution and asthma and evidence that all the organs in our bodies are affected in some way by it.

In February 2017, the UK received a ‘final warning’ to comply with EU air quality regulations or face being taken to the European Court of Justice. The UK could face fines of up to £300 million. The mess we’re in doesn’t respect borders or different stages of economic development. From London to New Delhi we’re still failing to create cities where the air is fit for us all to breathe.

It’s a stark example of a much bigger problem. A rapid transition to make cities free from toxic air pollution, much of which results from fossil fuel use, is also a key step towards a zero-carbon economy. This is about how everyone, globally, can thrive within planetary boundaries.

Shifting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 would prevent 90 million premature deaths between now and then according to work by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University.

The New Weather Institute has teamed up with the environmental group TERI Europe (linked to Indian-based group TERI), to work with local people in London and New Delhi. Over the coming months, we will grow visions to help accelerate the transition so we can all see a better, cleaner future. We’re launching this project on the UK’s first National Clean Air Day, with events and films to educate people about the problems – and to build towards the solutions we so badly need.

The cities of the world need such a rapid transition to protect their citizens and prevent catastrophic climate change. Worldwide, around 18,000 people die every day as a result of air pollution, the vast bulk in cities. An alliance of cities called C40, who work on climate change, concluded: “action taken in the next four years will determine if it is possible for cities to get on the trajectory required to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement.”

Burning fossil fuels lies at the root of both life-limiting smogs and the build-up of climate disrupting greenhouse gases. London and Delhi are both plagued by severe pollution and are, currently, heavily dependent on fossil fuels. But the problems are not new.

London’s fight against pollution began as early as the 13th century when laws were passed to protect citizens. It reached a climax with the smogs of the 1950s and the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act. Now dirty diesel is the problem, contributing to nearly 10,000 deaths a year. Although the city is committed to becoming zero-carbon by 2050, a clear road-map is lacking on how to make the promise a reality.

Delhi has been struggling with dirty air for over 20 years, with pollution coming from vehicles, power stations and industry. In spite of positive steps, pollution is getting worse and is responsible for 10,000-30,000 annual deaths according to India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Reform plans are available, but prevented by “a dirty nexus of players who put profit over people’s health.”

Each winter, these two cities are connected in what has become a global ‘season of smog’. In Delhi, this spikes with Diwali in November. On 5 November 2016, particulate levels in Delhi were 14 times the standard for safe, breathable air, and worse than levels during the great London smog of 1952.

In spite of many differences, London and Delhi have become ‘toxic twins’. Their challenge is to become ‘clean air cousins’. For many it is hard to imagine what that might look like. Our project will help make that brighter future clearer to see.

Every day of delay in tackling the problem globally consigns thousands of people to premature deaths. For that reason, the project is also going to create a day of remembrance for all those people avoidably lost to toxic air pollution and as a moment to look ahead with greater commitment to solve the problem. That day will be on 5th of December, the anniversary of the first day of the Great Smog of London, 1952, and a time of year when lethal smogs have become common in Delhi.

We would love to hear any comments and ideas this project might trigger for you, which can be left on this page.

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