The smell of exhaust fumes is unpleasant and unhealthy, and the gases are known for affecting happiness, intelligence and overall human well-being. Yet millions around the world are forced to breathe in noxious fumes every day as they go about their business—heading for work, going to school or simply stepping out of their homes for a moment.
Air pollution leads to premature death from heart disease, stroke, and cancer, as well as acute lower respiratory infections. Indoor and outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 7 million deaths globally in 2016, according to UN Environment’s recently published Measuring Progress report.
Transport emissions account for a significant proportion of air pollution in cities—varying enormously depending on the location. It can be the biggest or a minor source of air pollution, but its effects are devastating nonetheless. This is why local and national governments are increasingly taking steps to improve urban air quality by developing smarter public transport systems and/or switching to electric mobility and zero emission transport.
“We need three things to happen,” says UN Environment’s electric mobility expert Rob de Jong. “We need to avoid the need for transport, like through better city design where kids can walk to school and shops are close to residential areas; we need to shift to more efficient modes of transport, like public transport and walking and cycling; and we need to improve transport, like through cleaner vehicles.”
Sustainable Development Goal 3.9 calls for substantially reducing “the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination”. For changes to be felt at such scale, a combination of behaviour change, persuasion, perseverance and leadership will be required.
UN Environment’s e-mobility programme supports countries, particularly emerging economies, in introducing electric mobility. It helps governments to develop policies, exchange best practices, pilot technology options, track electric vehicle uptake, and calculate emissions and economic benefits.
Here, we look at some examples of initiatives from around the world to green the land-based transport sector.
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London
Khan has pushed for—and implemented on 8 April 2019—an ultra-low emissions zone and confirmed its expansion to North and South circular roads from October 2021. Strict emission standards will also apply to buses, coaches and lorries across the whole of London from October 2020. Both schemes will lead to emission reductions across London and more than 100,000 residents no longer living in areas exceeding legal air quality limits in 2021.
These bold measures will deliver a major improvement to Londoners’ health by improving air quality, potentially preventing thousands of premature deaths and other serious conditions. Research demonstrates that these effects currently disproportionately impact the poorest Londoners, but all areas of London are expected to see reductions in pollution.
“Tackling London’s lethal air and safeguarding the health of Londoners requires bold action. Air pollution is a national health crisis and I refuse to stand back as thousands of Londoners breathe in air so filthy that it shortens our life expectancy, harms our lungs and worsens chronic illness,” says Khan.
Carolina Schmidt, Minister of Environment of Chile
Chile has the second largest electric bus fleet in the world, after China. Speaking at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March, Schmidt stressed the importance of having an electric mobility strategy so that everyone can work together to accomplish the goal of reducing air pollution. She stressed the economic advantage of switching to electric vehicles, and their popularity with the public.
“We have 200 electric buses in Santiago. They are an enormous success with people. The quality is so much better. People paid more for it and took more trips.”
Schmidt has helped incentivize the private sector to ensure that by 2022 Chile has 10 times more electric cars. “Between 2014 and 2018 we doubled our participation in renewables and clean energy,” she said.
Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica
“When you have the ministries of energy and environment in the same house you can make big leaps forward. Same person, same agency,” says Rodriguez, stressing that institutional organization is a key pre-requisite for change. He was speaking at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi last month.
Costa Rica, a country of 5 million people, uses a combination of solar, biomass, wind and geothermal energy to cover the country’s energy needs for over 300 days a year. It has a long-term plan to decarbonize its economy which includes electric mobility.
“If anyone asks why we are bothering to do this when our contribution to greenhouse gases is only 0.4 per cent of the global total, our answer is: because it makes economic sense. And health sense. And there are real cost benefits for decarbonization.”
Ola Evestuen, Minister of Climate and Environment of Norway
Norway, which aims to decarbonize its economy by 2030, has a greater percentage of electric vehicles than anywhere else in the world: 70 per cent of passenger cars on the road are electric.
The Ministry of Finance’s introduction of a broad package of incentives has been vital in achieving this. While there’s no road tax on electric cars, conventional cars are heavily taxed. Electric vehicles get free transportation on Norway’s ferries. Public parking in city centres is only allowed for electric cars. Infrastructure development has also been very important: many charging stations are in people’s homes.
“We have only 5 million people but are the third largest market for electric mobility in the world. Obviously, we want be overtaken,” said Ola Evestuen’s deputy at the UN Environment Assembly.
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology
In April 2018, China introduced a scheme to promote environmentally friendly passenger vehicles in automobile manufacturing companies’ vehicle fleets. The scheme ties corporate average fuel consumption to “new energy vehicle” sales. New energy vehicles are electric passenger cars, plug-in hybrids, or fuel-cell cars. The measure establishes a “parallel administration” system for auto companies’ corporate average fuel consumption and new energy vehicle sales.
The scheme is a modified version of California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate and specifies new energy vehicle targets for corporate fleets of 10 per cent of the conventional passenger vehicle market in 2019 and 12 per cent in 2020.
China’s Energy-Saving and New Energy Vehicle Industry Development Plan (2012–2020) has set average fleet targets of 6.9 litres of petrol per 100 km by 2015 and 5.0 litres per 100 km by 2020.
Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?
The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.
For further information, please contact Rob de Jong: [email protected]
The UN Climate Action Summit will take place in New York City on 23 September 2019 to increase ambition and accelerate action on the global climate emergency and support the rapid implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The 2019 UN Climate Action Summit is hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.