By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Among a host of environmental problems that concern city dwellers worldwide, air pollution consistently comes top of the list. This should come as no surprise – 99% of us breathe dirty air, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yet for most of my 20-year career working on cleaning up city environments, air quality barely registered in opinion polls. That has started to change as result of more widespread pollution monitoring and greater awareness – for instance, once parents know that the air around their children’s schools isn’t fit to breathe they tend are more inclined to support measures to cut pollution. But as a new report from C40 explains, it is also because mayors from London to Guadalajara have been enacting robust measures to get to grips with this invisible killer.

Toxic air is responsible for a range of health problems, including asthma, heart disease, premature births and reduced cognitive performance, and kills anywhere between 6.7 million and 8.7 million people globally each year. In December 2020 legal history was made after a coroner ruled that air pollution should be listed as the cause of death for nine-year-old Londoner Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. A global survey of public attitudes found that 76% of people identified air pollution as a big problem in the area where they live. Given the extent to which toxic air is a concern for urban residents the world over, city action to clean the air enjoys widespread public support, and in many cases can act as a gateway to engaging people on wider environmental issues. 

Air quality became a very personal issue for me in my twenties, after I developed adult onset asthma from a daily cycling commute through London’s polluted streets. In fact, air pollution was the first environmental issue I worked on as a young mayoral advisor in London in 2000. My working life became dominated by developing plans for a new congestion zone, in which drivers were to be charged a flat fee to drive through central London, along with the London-wide Low Emission Zone, which targeted the most polluting heavy goods vehicles. Despite being considered highly controversial at the time, the scheme was hugely successful, achieving a reduction in traffic congestion of 30% in its first year of operation in 2003.

Since then, Mayor Sadiq Khan has built on these initial successes by developing the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, which, by 2020, had resulted in a 45% reduction in nitrogen oxide within the zone, along with a 44% fall in roadside nitrogen dioxide. Recalling the controversy of the early schemes, it was truly inspiring to see the level of public support in October 2021 when Mayor Khan expanded the zone to an area 18 times the size of the original zone, encompassing over 3 million residents. In its first month of operation, there were around 47,000 fewer older, more polluting vehicles seen in the zone compared with the period two weeks before the scheme was introduced.

Ultra Low Emission Zone in London
© Harry Mitchell / AP Images for C40

Cities leaders across the world are using their power and influence to improve air quality. C40 Cities’ Clean Air Accelerator has been helping mayors from 37 cities around the world to slash air pollution and work towards meeting the WHO’s tough air quality guidelines. Now, three years since the accelerator was launched, their progress has been published in a report revealing the remarkable range of actions cities are taking to clean up the air.

These range from introducing speed limits to improving waste management, and closing the streets to make space for leisure and street food. Many cities, such as Bengaluru and Lima, have begun monitoring air quality and sharing the data with city residents. Other cities are taking steps to encourage active transport; Guadalajara has constructed more than 100km of cycle lanes, while Quezon City has distributed electric tricycles among residents. Quito’s new bike lanes have seen an increase in bicycle trips of more than 200% compared with 2019. 

The report shows how cities are also taking innovative approaches to the problem of air pollution; Los Angeles is creating designated spaces at the kerbside for exclusive use by freight and zero emission vehicles, while Stockholm is introducing dynamic traffic signals that react to real-time concentrations of NO2, resulting in smoother traffic through narrow streets, along with a reduction in stop-and-go traffic and travel times. 

C40’s Accelerator programme has helped cities to achieve remarkable progress on air pollution in just three years. Now that cities are armed with both the knowledge and support to tackle the problem, I look forward to seeing what interventions they pursue as we seek to build a world where everyone can enjoy clean air.

Share article

More Articles