Today (September 7) is the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. Ironically, we may only recently have understood the potential for blue skies, thanks to COVID-19.
As cities all over the world declared lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic, citizens noticed cleaner air resulting from temporary reductions in industrial activity and transport intensity. And, raise your hand if you gasped at the beauty of recent images from Kathmandu, where people reported being able to see Mount Everest for the first time in decades.
Even more, air quality levels in places renowned for their air pollution saw their own skies for a period of time, including California, with an all-time high air quality, and China, where satellite data reflected that country’s short-lived respite from air pollution.
Clean air is a basic human right and yet air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, responsible for 7.6 per cent of global deaths annually. Recent data shows that air pollution shortens lifespans, on average, by two years.
How have we let this happen?
Perhaps this is, finally, our gut-check moment. Our collective short-lived breath of fresh air has caused many to reconsider a return to ‘normal’. As cities the world over begin to rethink post-COVID-19 life, many have opted to create more space for cycling and walking, both to make neighborhoods more livable and to help maintain social distancing. A survey has found that people are now more concerned — not less — about addressing environmental challenges and are more committed to changing their own behavior to advance sustainability.
Now, they are speaking my “bikes for climate” language.
When it comes to cycling, one study suggests it could cut carbon emissions from transport in cities by 11 per cent “if cities around the world make a strong, sustained commitment to promoting bicycle travel.” Getting more people to consider bikes as transportation should not be a hard sell. According to a survey commissioned by the industry-funded “Bike Is Best” campaign, for every person against, 6.5 people are in favor of measures to encourage cycling and walking.
Of course, progress on this front is not possible without the support of local and national governments. Government funding for green recovery options — and a managed fossil fuel phaseout — are required to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C. Recent research shows that the dramatic drop in greenhouse gases and air pollutants seen during the global lockdown will have little impact on our warming planet and that putting the huge sums of post-COVID-19 recovery funding into low-carbon solutions is necessary to put us on the right track. So far only the EU is on this path; some 20 million euros (of the 750 billion euro recovery package unveiled in May) will be used to help cities roll out cycling infrastructure and clean public transport.
Many local and national governments have announced measures to support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery, from hundreds of miles of new bike lanes in Milan and Mexico City to widening pavements and pedestrianizing neighborhoods in New York and Seattle. A total of 2,082 km of cycle lanes have been added globally, equivalent to the distance from London to Rome.
In the US, despite clear national leadership failures, many sub-national governments and cities are reflecting their willingness to do more to both contain the pandemic and drive climate action. Oakland has closed 119km (74 miles) or 10 percent of its streets to traffic to provide more space for citizens to keep social distance. New York city council announced a similar plan to expand cycling lanes — 161 km (100 miles) of streets will be allocated to “socially responsible recreation” during the COVID crisis. My own home city, Seattle, has permanently closed 32 km (20 miles) of streets to cars to make more space for cycling, walking and exercise. As more people turn to bicycles as a mode of transportation, bikes (and e-Bikes) have “sold out” at local shops, and bike repair services for those early adopters already on the streets have been deemed essential services.
The COVID-19 pandemic response has proven that local, collective action has the power to change the world. I see huge opportunity for mayors and any influential leader to commit to, if not model, the behavior — as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is already doing — a normalization of bicycles as transportation, spurring safer streets and better infrastructure planning.
The challenge is to extend this moment of urgent collaboration to reduce costs and carbon emissions in the long term. and help countries reach their climate targets consistent with 1.5-degree scenarios.
A truly green recovery must include a rapid uptake of biking infrastructure and successful collaborations, innovation and determination to allow people to travel safely. We’ve already proven the point: if we build it, people will come… along for the ride.
First published, September 7th, in I Heart Climate Voices.