On Sunday 22 September, roads around London Bridge, Tower Bridge and much of the City of London will be closed in an effort to tackle the city’s air pollution crisis.
Air pollution kills thousands of people every year and two million more live in areas where levels of air pollution are above the limit established by the World Health Organization. This is why the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has decided to hold the capital’s biggest World Car-Free celebrations to date.
“Air pollution has become a silent killer around the world,” says Khan, echoing the World Health Organization’s statement that air pollution represents a global public health emergency. “This is not merely rhetoric, but an inescapable reality—backed up by cold, hard facts—and one that demands urgent action from our political leaders.”
On Sunday, the Mayor will close 20 km of roads in London’s city centre, with 18 boroughs hosting local celebrations, and hundreds of activities scheduled to take place across closed streets. More than 150,000 Londoners are expected to join in an effort to bring communities together and create play streets for children and a positive vision of what a global city can look like in a healthier and more sustainable future.
According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die from air pollution every year, making it the greatest environmental threat to health today. Urban air pollution in particular is increasing by 8 per cent every five years, and 95 per cent of cities worldwide do not meet World Health Organization’s guidelines. “This is also an issue of social justice, with the poorest people suffering the worst impacts of air pollution, despite driving the fewest cars,” says Khan. The impact of air pollution goes beyond human health and inequality, and has detrimental effects on our economy, food security and the climate crisis.
Global cities such as London are introducing strict regulations to limit the levels of air pollution in their urban areas. Earlier this year, Seoul, South Korea introduced new legislation that mandates every school classroom to have an air purifier, and Santiago, Chile took delivery of its first 100 e-buses in December 2018 as part of plans to electrify the public transport system. Khan took the opportunity of this year’s World Car-Free celebrations to announce the introduction of a new ultra-low emission zone—a world first—in the city centre. This means that vehicles driving into central London have to meet the toughest emission standards of any global city.
Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat said efforts to reduce pollution in cities by moving to cleaner bus fleets and non-car public transport options has immediate and long-term benefits.
“Ultra-low emissions zones and investments in clean public transport technology deliver large-scale public benefits like improved air quality, better health and pedestrian friendly cities. These efforts also have fast and long-lasting benefits for the climate by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and short-lived but highly warming particulates like black carbon.”
London, Seoul and Santiago are part of the UN Environment Programme’s Breathe Life network of cities working to beat air pollution in urban areas. The network consists of 63 cities, regions and countries covering a population of 271 million citizens that are committed to implementing the necessary regulations and creating conditions to support the development of state-of-the-art technology to tackle the air pollution crisis.
World Car-Free Day is an international event celebrated every 22 September and in which people are encouraged to use public or non-motorized transport to get around. This Sunday, make sure you join the global celebrations and leave your car at home, to #BeatAirPollution.
Drivers need to learn to share the road
UN Environment Programme’s Share the Road Programme supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to invest in infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles. The programme is centred around the concept that everyone begins and ends their journeys as pedestrians, and in cities, some people rely almost exclusively on walking and cycling. Yet, investors and governments continue to prioritize road space for cars.
Breathe Life—a global campaign for clean air
Many of the cities which hold car-free days also participate in the #BreatheLife campaign. The Breathe Life campaign is led by the World Health Organization, the UN Environment Programme and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition. It supports cleaner air initiatives, promotes the use of clean energy and helps cities, regions and countries develop policies and programmes to reduce air pollution. Like car-free days, the Breathe Life campaign stresses the measures that people can take as communities or individuals (for example, to stop waste burning, promote green spaces and walking or cycling) to improve air quality.