Navigant Research Blog

Smoggy Skies Drive City Innovation

Eric Woods — September 16, 2014

The air pollution caused by rising vehicle numbers and coal-fired power plants in Chinese cities has been well documented.  But these issues are not limited to cities of the developing world.  In March, smog levels in Paris reached levels that forced the city government to limit vehicle access to the city and make public transportation free.  Subsequent analysis suggests that this drastic measure had a notable impact on air quality, if only temporarily.

Paris is not alone among European cities in suffering from deteriorating air quality.  London and other U.K. cities, for example, have been under the spotlight for failing to meet European Union (EU) standards on air quality.  A report in July suggested that Oxford Street in London was one of the most polluted roads in the word with regard to nitrogen dioxide (largely produced by diesel buses and cars), with levels 3 times the EU-recommended amount – and higher than Beijing.  London and some other U.K. cities are not expected to meet EU targets for air pollution reduction until 2030.

Fewer Vehicles, Cleaner Air

The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide each year; this mortality rate is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 10 microns or less in diameter, which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancers.  Of particular concern in cities are fine particulate matter below 2.5 microns, referred to as PM2.5, which can lodge deep within the lungs.  This life-threatening type of smog is created by burning vehicle fuel as well as other fuels such as coal and wood.

The need to address air pollution is becoming a significant driver for the adoption of electric vehicles in cities, restrictions on the worst polluting vehicles, and the introduction of technologies that can monitor and improve air quality.  Madrid, for example, is using parking fees to target the worst polluting vehicles, while also introducing an electric bike rental scheme.  Boston is piloting high-tech city benches that can collect information on air quality and provide solar-powered charging for electronic devices.  Other high-tech attempts to improve air quality have been less than successful: a project supported by the Mayor of London that used a form of glue to collect contaminants proved to be largely ineffective in capturing vehicle pollution.  More recently, the Mayor has suggested that diesel vehicles, responsible for much of London’s damaging air pollution, may face additional charges for driving in the capital under the city’s congestion charging scheme.

Looking East

In the future, western cities may look to China as a leader in air quality improvement.  In 2013, the Chinese government launched its Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which will see it invest $277 billion in an attempt to reduce air pollution by up to 25% in selected provinces and cities (including the municipality of Beijing) by 2017 compared to 2012 levels.  Beijing alone is expected to invest around $160 billion.  Beijing is also working with IBM on a 10-year project called Green Horizon that will employ sensor technologies, big data analytics, weather modelling, and other advanced techniques to help the city monitor and address air pollution.  The project will also integrate renewable energy forecasting and industrial energy management.

In North America and Europe, air pollution is often associated with a previous age of industrialization, but the growing public awareness of the continuing threat to public health is accelerating policy and technology innovation.  Ultimately, air pollution in our cities needs to be addressed through a combination of transportation and energy policies and the general adoption of clean fuel vehicles and other clean technologies.

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