The air we breathe is the simplest and most necessary sustainer of life on this planet. But when that air is contaminated, even if we can't see its impact, public health is at risk. Black smoke billowing from a smokestack is one manifestation of air pollution, but there are many others, less obvious and just as dangerous. Consider that in California, you're more likely to die from air pollution than from a car accident. And disproportionately, air pollution like the soot and smog that comes from cars and trucks impacts communities of color.
That's why the World Health Organization and UN Environment partnered to create the Breathe Life Campaign in October 2016. A year in, 44 cities have signed on to access the advice, funding, and support that Breathe Life brings to those cities that are willing to step up and set ambitious goals for air quality.
"To join the campaign, they have to commit to an action plan that should lead to providing safe air for citizens by 2030," explained Samantha Le Royal, Campaign Coordinator of Breathe Life in an interview with VICE Impact.
Each city has different issues, but Breathe Life has honed the main causes of air pollution into three main sectors: energy supply, transport-related emissions, and poorly managed waste. For example, in Talca, Chile, people primarily heat their homes from wood-burning fires, and in the winter, the air quality takes a nosedive. In Mongolia, garbage burning as a method to get rid of waste is a tremendous issue. And in LA and London, pollution from carbon-powered vehicles is the primary concern.
"We have a set of policies and commitments," said Le Royal, "and then we can match the commitments with what kinds of campaigns are needed to support that commitment."
There's a lot of collaboration and sharing of information between cities. For example, Mexico City has been working on its air pollution problem for a long time.
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"They have three decades of experience tackling air pollution," said Le Royal. "They have systems in place that the Chinese can come and see. For example, you cannot use your vehicle three or four days a week."
Breathe Life examines the issues in a certain city and provides the tools they will need to fix them. They might help with marketing or raising awareness, or they might send in an expert to assess the air quality. They might give advice; they might give cash. They will also match cities that have similar issues and facilitate an exchange of ideas and best practices.
London has stepped up as a leader in the mission to improve air quality, pushing the national government to support the city in making bold strides.
"They must use this opportunity to take the bold action required now to protect the health of our citizens and to save lives."
"The Government's Air Quality Plan is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the air that we all breathe less toxic," said Mayor Sadiq Khan in a statement in August. "Air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths across the country with more than 9000 in London every year. A half-hearted commitment from Government simply isn't good enough. They must use this opportunity to take the bold action required now to protect the health of our citizens and to save lives."
Le Royal points to London as one of the most forward-thinking examples of how we can reduce air pollution worldwide.
"They've come with one of the most ambitious plans we've seen so far," said Le Royal. "They would like to be a zero carbon city by 2050."
They've laid out a roadmap to get there, including improving transit and bike accessibility to the point where 80 percent of Londoners will travel by foot, bike, or public transport by 2041. By 2030, London plans to ensure that all taxis and cars for hire are fuel efficient. The city is currently building infrastructure, including convenient and ample charging stations, to support electric vehicles.
"They have a balanced and ambitious vision that takes into account social and economic development," said Le Royal. "It's not only a plan to lower carbon emissions, but also to make the city lively."
Santiago, Chile is another leader that's joined the Breathe Life campaign and seen results. Santiago Respira has set big goals to deal with the unique situation of the city which, because it's nestled between two major mountain ranges, suffers from extreme air quality problems.
"The big mountains concentrate air pollution in Santiago," said Marcelo Mena, Chile's Minister of the Environment, in an interview with Breathe Life. "We need substantial measures to make residential heating much cleaner than it would otherwise need to be."
By setting up air quality monitoring stations and mobile support stations that measure black carbon and CO2 levels, the Chilean government is able to report to the public air quality reports every day.
"We are bringing climate goals to the forefront and therefore every program the Chilean government does considers air pollution and climate change."
"The air quality app is the highest downloaded app in the country," said Mena. "We are bringing climate goals to the forefront and therefore every program the Chilean government does considers air pollution and climate change."
Santiago Respira is helping to set the pace for Latin America and to be an example for the world of a city with major air pollution issues that's making changes and seeing results.
"This is the first time a big city bans the use of wood burning for heating," said Mena. "One of the biggest measures is to establish a permanent ban on the percentage of cars in the city every day, exempting the cleanest cars. People will want to switch to cleaner cars, accelerating the movement of our fleet to be cleaner every day."
Joining the Breathe Life campaign offers an opportunity for mayors to take the matter of air quality into their own hands, and it impacts their residents immediately.
"It's an avenue for mayors to continue their work towards the Paris Agreement," said Le Royal. But, she pointed out that Breathe Life is more specific and targeted. "This is the single initiative that focuses on global collaboration around air pollution."
Encourage your mayor to join the Breathe Life campaign, or learn other ways for how you can participate. If you want to support renewable energy in your hometown, find out more about the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.