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Spare the Air: What can big cities do to curb air pollution?

San Francisco hopes to inspire individuals to change their behavior in order to contribute to clearer, healthier air.

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The city of San Francisco, seen in this 2008 photo, is under a 'Spare the Air Alert' Tuesday, for the tenth day this summer.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

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Bay Area residents are being asked to change their daily habits on Tuesday, the tenth day this summer when high levels of pollution have prompted a “Spare the Air Alert.” From carpooling, biking, and taking public transit to work, to staying home altogether and telecommuting, people are advised to limit how much smog they contribute to by embracing a greener lifestyle.

“A week of poor air quality is expected in our region due to high temperatures, stagnant air and smoke from the Soberanes Fire,” Jack Broadbent, executive director of San Francisco's Air District, said in a statement. San Francisco is far from the only city where air pollution has reached a level of urgency: 80 percent of the world's population living in cities that monitor pollution levels are breathing air that fails to meet the World Health Organization’s air quality standards.

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While limiting vigorous activity to the early-morning hours, before ozone pollution reaches peak heights, is advised for individuals, San Francisco is also focusing on the root of the problem, encouraging energy conservation.

“Clean air is a basic human right that most of the world's population lacks,” International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “No country – rich or poor – can claim that the task of tackling air pollution is complete. But governments are far from powerless to act and need to act now.”

One action governments around the world are taking is educating citizens about the small ways they can step up. The Global Action Plan in London is spearheading an initiative to combat air pollution in Britain’s capital by encouraging drivers to turn off their engines rather than idling their cars, as popularized through the hashtag, #noidling. The average American driver spends more than 16 minutes a day idling his or her vehicle, according to EcoWatch, wasting a total of 3.8 million gallons of fuel across the country each day and emitting carbon dioxide and other pollutants that could be prevented through smarter driving practices.

The London campaign hopes to make drivers aware that, when stopping for even 10 seconds, it’s best to turn off your engine, because 10 seconds of idling uses more energy than restarting the engine. The vehicle’s engine warms twice as quickly when it is driven, so drivers should also drive the vehicle slowly at first to warm up the engine rather than idling in a parking spot.

It’s often difficult for local governments to get the word out about air quality advisories, and even harder to compel action. A 2008 study of residents in Portland, Ore., and Houston revealed that one-third of residents surveyed were aware of air quality advisories, but only about 10 to 15 percent of citizens changed their behavior.

Japan’s environment ministry reached an impressive 96.1 percent public awareness of one of its energy-savings initiatives, 10 years after the introduction of the “Cool Biz” campaign in 2005. The campaign encouraged offices to turn down the AC, and embrace a more casual dress code so workers could still be comfortable indoors. With a new standard of no less than 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit – compared to the average of 70 degrees in American offices – carbon emissions were reduced by an estimated 2.2 million tons in 2012.

“This was a case in which the policy and the demand from the public worked well together, with many people willing to dress lighter during the summer while the government was trying to cut down carbon emission,” Nanae Fujimoto, an official at the environment ministry’s Lifestyle Policy Office, told The Wall Street Journal in 2014.

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Air pollution is thought to contribute to 6.5 million premature deaths each year, according to the first-ever air pollution study by the International Energy Agency, released last month – deaths that can be prevented as cities encourage environmentally-friendly lifestyles, activists and public health officials say.