In the countries and cities that have now become model examples in air pollution mitigation, public awareness and engagement was often the missing link between the problem and action.
China is one such case. In 2007, China became the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Yet, it was only in 2014 that the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a "war on pollution".
Mobilised through social media, citizens rapidly congregated across the country in thousands opposing the building of coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators, chemical plants, oil refineries, battery factories - anything that polluted the air. Questioning the government's 'official' air quality data, citizens began to share pollution data released by the American Embassy in China. They also began to independently measure pollution, via sensors attached to kites. In 2016, school students in Xi'an in northwest China covered the faces of 800 ceremonial stone lions, protesting the city's pollution levels.
Under the Dome, a film about an unborn Chinese baby girl who developed a tumour while still in her mother's womb due to air pollution, earned over 300 million views within the first week of its release.
Finally, the smog crisis of 2013 prompted the Chinese government to launch an all-out 'war' against air pollution. In September of that year, the State Council in China unveiled the "Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Air Pollution", which aimed to improve overall air quality across the country over a five-year period.
Relentless community level and local activism and the global coverage pushed China to change course. China has increased wind and solar power investments, has launched stronger anti-pollution laws, including one that allows NGOs to sue polluters, and is working to create a "green economy". Not surprisingly, recent analysis of the China's satellite particulate matter measurements has shown improvement in average air quality.
Two years after China waged war on air pollution, London began its transition to clean air. In 2016, Londoners were concerned about pollution becoming the city's leading killer and the city saw massive protests. Most notably, activists climbed atop the city's most famous statues and placed face masks on them: Nelson too needed clean air!
All 2016 mayoral candidates made air pollution an issue in their run for the city's leadership. Soon after taking office, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a plan of action to clean up the city's air, including a planned Ultra-Low Emission Zone in Central London. The zone mandates Euro 4/IV emission standard for all vehicles passing through, and a daily £24 charge for older, more polluting cars. The city has also budgeted over £300 million to retrofit its bus fleet with a new exhaust system and deploy them on the city's most polluted routes.
In the coming decade, London plans to invest billions of pounds on far-reaching disruptions, such as improving walking and cycling infra, zero-emission taxis, and completely phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles with hydrogen-powered buses and electric vehicles. To ensure the public is behind him every step of the way, Khan's office launched an ad campaign featuring everyday objects, such as a baby bottle, heavily soiled by pollutants and toxic dust. Despite Khan's measures, Londoners can be found participating in anti-pollution protests to this day - not letting the mayor forget his commitment to their health. But the same cannot be said for Delhi.
The time is opportune to ensure that the city, and the larger governmental framework stays accountable to these recommendations. We as people, brands, businesses, organisations and institutions must use every avenue available to make the message count - whether it is the Right to Information Act, social media, or school-based programmes - to hold stakeholders accountable for their part in fighting pollution. Delhi shouldn't wait for the next November news cycle to remind itself of what bad air can do the health and quality of life for its people. As a country we shouldn't wait for this to become a crisis that is irreparable.
(Rakesh Thukral is Managing Director, Edelman India.)
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