Reducing Airborne Pollution to Save Lives, Save the Planet: Urban Transitions 2022
Reducing air pollution could save an estimated 166,000 premature deaths in European cities alone. Photo: IS Global

At COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, world leaders will focus on the seemingly overwhelming task of fast-tracking the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while lessoning our dependence on fossil fuels.

Two days later, Urban Transitions 2022 gets underway in Sitges, Spain. The event is organized by information and analytics company Elsevier in collaboration with IS Global (Barcelona Institute for Global Health). It brings together city thinkers, urban planners, transport professionals, nature-based and justice communities, and environment and health professionals to discuss ways to better cope with such prevailing challenges as rapid urbanization and global warming.

One of the focal points at Urban Transitions will be air quality and what can be done to address unacceptably high levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and NO2. Gases produced by motorized traffic, residential heating, indoor burning of wood and other organic matter, shipping, airports and industry.

Conference chair Mark Nieuwenhuijsen predicts that one of the recurring themes will be the need to bring health more into urban planning. “Urban and transport planning needs to focus on getting people out of cars and making cities greener,” he said.  

In addition to chairing Urban Transitions, Nieuwenhuijsen is Director of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at IS Global. Last week, that organization called Europe’s leaders to task for falling short on air quality targets between now and 2030. “The European Commission target ​​of 10 (micrograms per cubic meter) per year for PM 2.5 and 20 for NO 2 throughout the EU by 2030, while an improvement over current levels, is still double the WHO air quality guidelines,” said Nieuwenhuijsen. “That, despite the fact that studies show that adopting the WHO guidelines could prevent some 166,000 deaths in European cities alone.”

Nieuwenhuijsen said he will focus on cities as hotspots of air pollution and the “tens of thousands” of premature deaths each year in European cities that could be prevented if we reduce air pollution levels to below the WHO guidelines. His overarching message will be that “urgent action and monitoring needs to be taken as soon as possible in order to  reduce the current levels, if municipal leaders are serious about saving lives.”

Underscoring that message, Agustí Pérez-Foguet, a principal investigator with the University of Catalonia, will provide insight at Urban Transitions into the direct association between air pollution and human health in urban settings. Pérez-Foguet’s research includes taking a closer look at the correlation between human mortality rates (including by sex and age) vis-a-vis varying levels of air pollution as well as how climate and geography affects those levels.  

Another session at the conference will tackle how traffic restriction measures can create safer and healthier communities. Presenter Dr. Audrey de Nazelle, a senior lecturer with the Centre for Environment Policy, Imperial College London, will walk through a study conducted in the London Borough of Islington that examined how traffic flow affects deaths related to air pollution. They found that by strategically redirecting traffic in high density neighborhoods, air pollution and the resulting negative health impacts can be significantly reduced.

Yet another session, led by Ana Ascends a PhD student who studies air quality modelling with the University of Aveiro Department of Environment and Planning, will shed light on the effects of increasing amounts of impermeable surfaces and disappearing green spaces on air temperature and air pollution – and how nature-based solutions can address these problems.

Ascenso’s presentation will be tied to a recent study conducted in Eindhoven, Netherlands, that showed that nature-based solutions, including increasing the tree canopy of cities, can effectively reduce ambient temperatures while improving air quality.

The high level messaging that links all of these Urban Transitions presentations is that air pollution remains a huge problem in our cities, contributing to significant health challenges for residents, particularly for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and children walking to school, who are all too often are exposed to unacceptably high levels of particulate matter and other sources of pollution.

“We have a situation where our economies continue to rely on fossil fuels… in part due to the war in the Ukraine,” noted Nieuwenhuijsen. “Including continuing to provide large subsidies to the oil industry rather than using those funds to accelerate the transition to renewables.”

In an ideal world we should be using those oil subsidies as a catalyst for positive change, said Nieuwenhuijsen. Our “inconvenient truth” is that “meeting the WHO’s air quality guidelines wouldn’t cost that much more than the partial solutions being put forth.”

Find out more about Urban Transitions 2022.

Mark Wessel is an urban journalist and public speaker who profiles unique city initiatives tied to sustainability, resiliency and quality of living that other communities can learn from. His work has appeared in Child in the City, TheCityFix, Next City, Municipal World, Cities Today and the Urban Future ‘City Changers’ blog. He also writes a regular Green Living column for Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain.

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