3.7 million people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this is the number of individuals who die each year due to air pollution. At this rate, simple math dictates that more than 120 million people will die because of outdoor air pollution by 2050. Unfortunately, however, this estimate of fatalities is optimistic, as air pollution is only on the rise and is being exacerbated by climate change.
While the WHO’s global estimates can appear abstract in nature, the impacts air pollution is wreaking on cities are entirely concrete. Consider, for example, São Paulo, Brazil, where the Health and Sustainability Institute has reported that the number of deaths linked to pollution is three times higher than those caused by traffic accidents. Further, because of air pollution, 7000 people die prematurely every year in São Paulo’s metropolitan area, and each citizen has his/her life expectancy shortened by 1.5 years, on average.
The adverse health effects, like those being experienced in São Paulo, call for immediate and far reaching changes in the way we think about air pollution. Indeed, polluted air has become the largest environmental health risk in the world—an environmental challenge which demands urgent action to reduce emissions. One way countries can significantly improve emissions and decrease air pollution is by reforming transport.
Transport’s Role in Emissions and Pollution
As economies develop and cities grow, the need for transport is increasing at an alarming rate, resulting in enormous hikes in emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that emissions from transport will double by 2050. Indeed, unlike some emitting sectors that are beginning to stagnate, transport is the fastest growing emitting area, beating out both manufacturing and electricity production. However, most concerning in the transport sector has been the rising dominance of the personal vehicle. Startlingly, personal vehicles comprise less than one-third of all trips made in cities, but account for 73 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from city transport.
While varying greatly between countries, transport emissions (light orange) represent a substantial source of CO2. Hover over the graphic for more information.
As the graph above indicates, levels of emissions coming from transport vary based on geography and context; to better understand the relationship between transport and emissions on the national level, let’s consider Brazil. In the hierarchy of the largest emitters in the world, Brazil appears in seventh place. And, between 1990 and 2013, the country’s emissions more than doubled, increasing by 130 percent. During these decades of emissions growth, the transport sector played a dramatic role, and in 2014, accounted for 46.9 percent of all emissions of CO₂ associated with the energy matrix. While only one example, Brazil’s ratio of transport emissions are on par with many other major emitting countries.
Why Cities Need to Lead the Charge in Transport Reform
Just as the transport sector plays a large role in global emissions and pollution, it is also the key for combating these problems. However, transport reform will only be meaningful when achieved in cities. Indeed, urban centers are responsible for producing 70 percent of all greenhouse gases, and therefore yield the largest impact on both CO2 emissions and air pollution, and set the standard for alternatives to dirty methods of transport.
This need for greener, more sustainable modes of transport comes at a time when cities are rethinking their growth patterns, working to promote densification and mixed land use. Therefore, cities should work to create denser cities with fewer cars and improved mass transport, and consider how mixed land use impacts transport design. By focusing on building compact communities, improving public services and spaces, and encouraging sustainable economic development, urban planning can be a catalyst for major changes that promotes both growth and sustainability.
The challenges to achieving these changes are diverse and plenty. These reforms, however, must be made now, and will determine the future of climate around the world. Reducing the negative impacts of transport on health and air quality is imperative for creating a future where we can live—and breathe—better.