At a biennial meeting of city leaders from across the world, four cities committed to introducing bans for all diesel vehicles on the grounds of improving air quality. The meeting took place in Mexico and the cities involved are Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, and Paris. For too long we as environmentalists have spoken about climate change as something that will imminently happen but because of this people have thought of this idea as distant. By linking fossil fuel usage to air quality, the environmentalist movement can relate abstract ideas to people’s everyday lives.
The impact of this measure will be positive on a number of levels. Given that the premise of the move was to improve air quality we’ll start there. In a report published in November 2015 by the European Environment Agency, it was estimated that around 500,000 Europeans died annually from diesel pollution alone. It is therefore interesting to note that of the three cities mentioned above, three were in Europe.
This is not the first thing that these cities have done. In Paris for one day every month the Champs Élysées is closed to traffic, and a section of the right bank of the Seine has been pedestrianised where formally it was a two-lane motorway. In Athens the subway was in the process of being expanded and since 1994 the government has inspected new cars for their levels of emissions. In Madrid three quarters of all air pollution comes from fossil fuel-run vehicles, and in response a cycling promotion scheme was introduced which has proved popular.
The fourth participant, Mexico’s City, is involved because the topography of the city means that pollution hangs above the settlement, a geographical fact that have seen an array of studies published linking pollution to deteriorating health. The Mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera said “it is no secret that in Mexico City, we grapple with the twin problems of air pollution and traffic”. This statement is key because it illustrates how all environmental problems are interconnected. If this measure cuts the amount of diesel vehicles on the road aggregate traffic pollution declines. A governmental move to introduce walking or cycling would improve people’s health and reduce congestion further.
As well as these four cities, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to expand the British capital’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). The ULEZ is a proposed zone that would target diesel-powered vehicles and would introduce tougher restrictions than the London Low Emission Zone currently has in place.
The idea of transitioning away from fossil fuels has long been a conversation on the global level, and of course it has to be because no amount of recycling will save the world if the world’s largest countries don’t give a shit about climate change. Cities are a prime example of where local activism can make a substantive difference.
Cities are essentially human ecosystems and working collectively we can transform them to massively reduce carbon emissions. Transport is obviously a key part of this but encouraging energy efficiency and renewable electricity generation are also invaluable. By making the struggle against climate change pertinent to people’s everyday lives people who don’t see themselves as environmentalists will join the fight to improve their communities. Focusing on pollution in this way may well be the future of the urban environmental movement.