C40's Executive Director Mark Watts: Mayors from around the world won’t breathe easily until urban air pollution is tackled

A coalition of 20 mayors from major European cities have this week called on governments from across the continent to  use all legal and political means in their power to ensure Europe’s air pollution standards are applied consistently across every industry, including car manufacturers.

The mayors of many of Europe’s greatest cities, urged legislators to enforce tighter air pollution limits on new diesel cars after the European Parliament voted against a measure that would have forced carmakers to cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. New cars on the roads of European cities will be allowed to emit NOx at rates that breach the EU’s own air pollution limits until 2021 and beyond.

This public statement of solidarity is just the latest example of mayors from Europe and beyond showing their determination to tackle the urgent crisis of urban air pollution, regardless of decisions taken by national and transnational politicians.

The issue of urban air pollution has made international headlines in recent months – and for good reason. There are 3.7 million premature deaths due to ambient (outdoor) air pollution each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Head of public health at the WHO Dr Maria Neira recently warned that air pollution in cities is now “one of the biggest public health issues we have ever confronted.” Her warnings are based on air pollution data collected by the WHO from 2,000 cities around the world.

It is citizens of the world’s major cities whose health is most at risk from air pollution, and therefore it is mayors who are most determined to take decisive action to reduce emissions. C40 mayors are already taking action to limit air pollution, leading the way and learning from each other to identify solutions that work for their local context.

In Madrid, Mayor Manuela Carmena has unveiled plans that would see cars banned from the city’s historic centre and further restrictions on cars across the city when air pollution is particularly severe. Crisis measures would see up to 50% of cars barred from entering the city centre when pollution levels peak whilst public transit would be made free to all users.

Milan banned cars, motorcycles and scooters from the city centre for three days in December 2015 to tackle a persistent smog cloud that had settled on the city. Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo recently announced plans to ban the worst polluting lorries and coaches from entering the Périphérique, the circular road that rings Paris. Oslo is developing plans to ban all private vehicles from the city centre by 2019, in order to meet the city government’s ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% compared to 1990 levels.

The challenge and efforts to find solutions are not confined to Europe. Indeed, the WHO data reveals that six out of the ten most air polluted cities are found in India.  Inspired by similar schemes in C40 cities in Europe and China, New Delhi banned cars with odd and even number plates from entering the city on alternate days for two weeks in January 2016. Initial research carried out by the University of Chicago suggests that the volume of pollutants in New Delhi’s air was reduced by 10-13 per cent during the days that the odd-even scheme was in operation. Whilst this effort has not solved the city’s air pollution problems overnight, the degree to which citizens complied and the notable reduction in congestion suggest that Delhi residents are open to radical solutions to tackle the air pollution crisis. Delhi is now moving forward with another two-week trial of car rationing in April, and considering whether this could become a monthly programme.

Twenty-six C40 cities, including Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, have also shown their commitment to reducing emissions from vehicles by signing the C40 Clean Bus Declaration. The Declaration commits cities to improving air quality through the introduction of low and ultimately zero-emission busses in their public transport fleets.

Global cities are also working collaboratively to tackle these issues through C40’s Transit Oriented Development and Mobility Management networks, in partnership with the Ford Foundation and MasterCard, respectively.

Today, mayors – and their citizens – have a vision of what the cities of the future can and should look like. They want cities that are not dangerous to our health, cities that are easy to get around on reliable and sustainable public transport — cities designed for people rather than cars.

Mayors around the world, within the C40 network and beyond, know that the ambitious goals established in the Paris Agreement, negotiated by national leaders at COP21, depends on action by cities. Their citizens are looking to mayors to act on climate change and to ensure the air they breathe is clean and safe. In the process they may change the very principles that cities are built upon.