How these five global cities have improved their air quality

Air quality is a major issue in most large cities worldwide, but it also impacts on the surrounding rural and peri-urban areas. Rapid industrialization, private transport and residential heating are the main culprits behind the decrease in air quality recently registered by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Over 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the WHO limits. According to the latest urban air quality database, an astounding 98% of cities in low- and middle income countries with more than 100.000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.

When it comes to our air, what happens at ground level and what happens in the upper atmosphere are connected and should be addressed in a complementary way.

As the Climate Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) has pointed out, the work of reducing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), among which the infamous PM2.5 and PM10 (organic particles, or particulate matter measuring between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter), is complementary to the effort to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2).

SCLP mitigation has shown to have a significant potential to reduce near-term (20-40 years) global warming. It also prevents millions of premature deaths from small particulate pollution.

Combining SLCP and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction efforts in cities can have co-benefits in terms of air quality. This is an approach ICLEI recommends to local governments – integrated efforts that offer a win-win solution to the community.  In fact, 43% of the over 6,200 actions registered by cities in the carbonn Climate Registry, are reported as positively improving air quality.

So, here are five examples of cities that have been very successful in reducing their air pollution levels, sharing a brief peek at what they are doing to mitigate climate change, clean up their energy and transport sector and build resilience.

  • 1. Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain (-63%) The municipality of Vitoria-Gasteiz has worked to improve the biodiversity and the urban landscape, by creating a “green belt” along the Avenida de Gasteiz. The city has already planted 33,000 plants of 70 different species and aims to plant 250,000 more, covering a total of 51 spaces with no or hardly any tree cover. They have also developed a Public Space and Mobility Plan that fosters the use of public transport and bikes. Private vehicles use fell from 37% in 2006 to 24% in 2014. Finally, the city has awarded €4.6m in grants for the refurbishing and retrofitting of old houses. Over 10,000 renovations were carried out, mainly improving the insulation and energy performance of the buildings.