Rising air pollution levels in our cities that impact the health of people and planet are becoming impossible to ignore. So much so that China closed the last working coal power plant in Beijing this March, paving the way to a future of clean energy and air for its inhabitants.
This kind of radical change for cities must now become the norm, because by 2050 it is estimated that more than two-thirds of us will define ourselves as city dwellers.
Thousands of cities are already breaching their annual air pollution limits — often within days — and the oldest, the youngest and, more generally, the most vulnerable people are suffering at a disproportionate rate. In London, where I live, air pollutants are the reason scientists recently advised residents to use plastic covers over strollers when taking their children to school.
Across the Atlantic, the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Airreport found that 125 million Americans live with unhealthy levels of pollution, placing them at risk of premature death and other serious health effects, such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Meanwhile, in India, half of Delhi’s 4.4 million children are blighted by permanent lung damage that they will never fully recover from.
We therefore have a strong moral imperative to stop this madness and, thankfully, we also have all the tools and technologies we need to do it. These tools mean we can carry on with our daily lives without polluting our air, and therein lies our economic imperative to act: Investing in and fully adopting clean technologies is one of the biggest growth opportunities of our time.
These technologies bring the added benefit of slowing climate-changing emissions, which are heating up the planet, causing further health risks to us all. A recent study from The International Renewable Energy Agency showed that efforts to slow climate change won’t just keep the planet habitable, they will boost the world economy by $19 trillion, generating millions of new jobs.
So let us be clear: There is a very strong link between the decarbonized, economic growth of our cities and global health. In 2015, The Lancet published a report highlighting the linkages between health and climate change, stating: “tackling climate change could be the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century.” This was in the same year that 800 hospitals, 1,700 health organizations and 13 million health professionals mobilized to call on governments to secure the historic climate agreement in Paris.
They did this because the health of our people and our climate are inextricably linked, and the next few years represent a game-changing opportunity to improve air quality in the near-term, saving millions of lives, while simultaneously improving the future prospects of everyone.
We have a timeframe for action — science has made it clear that to protect the promise of Paris, we must bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 so that they begin their steady decline. Bending the curve by then will give us the best chance of achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring we reach a fully decarbonized economy by 2050.
In pursuit of this 2020 milestone, it is clear that improving urban health will be one of the surest ways of accelerating the already powerful momentum towards a decarbonized economy. In particular, we need to work together to ensure that zero-emission transport is the preferred form of all new mobility in the world’s major metropolises by 2020 and, concurrently, that all cities, states and regions have established plans, policies and regulations with the aim to fully decarbonize infrastructure by 2050.