The quality of air you breathe should not be dictated by the neighbourhood you live in, or the colour of your skin. That simple idea — that everyone should be able to breathe without getting sick — is what helped to bring us together to fight air pollution in London.
Over the past five years, the policies London has enacted have substantially reduced exposure to toxic air pollution for all Londoners. New data we are releasing shows that exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — probably the single greatest danger to health — has been dramatically reduced, with low-income areas benefiting most. The difference in exposure between the highest and lowest income areas has been cut by 50 per cent.
This success demonstrates how smart and well-designed policies can have enormously positive effects on our health. But we still have much more to do. The new data shows communities with lower incomes or a higher proportion of people from a non-white ethnic background are still more likely to be exposed to greater air pollution and the serious health problems it creates — from stunting the growth of young lungs to worsening chronic illnesses.
City Hall and Bloomberg Philanthropies are today launching the Breathe London community programme. Through this new effort, community groups, businesses and individuals can apply for a free air quality sensor to be installed in a location of their choice. It will provide real time, hyperlocal data about the air quality on their street, how it varies throughout the day or what the effect has been of a recent change — for example, a road closure. The sensor network, expanding to 350 sensors, will be managed by a team at Imperial College London with constantly updating results available on a public platform, breathelondon.org. Only with proper monitoring and transparency like this can air pollution be managed effectively in the communities that need it most.
Of course, air pollution is not merely a local issue. It kills almost four million people around the world each year. In a few weeks leaders from around the globe will gather in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations climate change conference. Air pollution must be a key part of the discussions because the same sources of air pollution that are terrible for our health are also wreaking havoc with the climate.
Major cities, like London and New York, have critical roles to play by showing what’s possible. New York has already proved a city’s carbon footprint can be reduced at impressive rates, even as its economy grows. In just six years, the Bloomberg administration cut the city’s carbon emissions by 12 per cent while raising its air quality to the cleanest levels in more than half a century — while creating a record number of jobs. London has created a world-first Ultra Low Emissions Zone, which has reduced carbon emissions and cut harmful pollution levels by half. Later this month it will expand by 18 times to incorporate a further 3.8 million residents. And the capital’s buses and black taxis are also being turned into some of the greenest in Europe.
COP26 is an important opportunity to jump-start unified global action towards ending the climate crisis and tackling air pollution, and to see the same bold commitment, co-operation and coordination that city mayors and local leaders around the world have shown in recent years. In London, we have seen how public-private partnerships drive progress, and governments, businesses and non-profits can all do more. Despite the magnitude of the problem, less than one per cent of international aid is aimed at cutting air pollution, and less than 0.1 per cent of philanthropic funding. The good news is — as cities and nations develop economic recovery plans — the same steps that reduce air pollution and fight climate change will also support job creation in growing industries with good wages, including both clean energy and energy efficiency.
As we begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, and as we prepare for the global climate gathering in Glasgow, we have a unique opportunity to do more, faster — to save lives and to build a healthier and more equitable future for all people, in all neighbourhoods.
Sadiq Khan is Mayor of London. Michael Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City from 2002-2014, is founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg L.P and is UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions
What do you think should be done to tackle air pollution in London? Let us know in the comments below.