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Global cities sign Clean Air Cities Declaration, pledging to fight air pollution crisis

At C40 Summit in Copenhagen, local leaders pledge to push aggressive measures to curb dirty air

The skyline of a modern city seen through an orangish-brown sky, the result of high levels of air pollution.
The polluted Shanghai skyline. 

On the last day of this week’s C40 World Mayor’s Summit, a global gathering of local leaders in Copenhagen dedicated to combating climate change, 35 cities pledged to take new action to fight air pollution.

By signing the C40 Clean Air Cities Declaration, these cities in effect promise to make promises. Signatories will “set ambitious pollution reduction targets within two years that meet or exceed national commitments, putting them on a path towards meeting World Health Organization guidelines,” and will implement substantive clean air policies by 2025, publicly reporting their progress on achieving cleaner air going forward. The idea is to spur a “race to the top” as cities compete to lower their own emissions.

But, progress by these cities—which include Austin, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, and Washington, D.C., Mexico City, Seoul, and Paris—can make an outsize impact on the health of millions and speed up the global push toward carbon-free transit and curtailing emissions. Drastic action is requited to make a dent; last year, according to the International Energy Agency, global energy-related carbon emissions hit a new record high.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nine in 10 people around the world breathe dirty air, and 7 million people die prematurely each year due to air pollution. The organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, calls air pollution the “new tobacco.” Roughly 100,000 Americans die each year due to the health impacts of air pollution, more than the number who die from car crashes and gun violence combined.

If just the 35 cities involved in this declaration can hit WHO guidelines for particulate pollution, it will prevent an estimated 40,000 deaths each year.

“Toxic air pollution is a global crisis, and as mayors, it is our fundamental responsibility to protect the public from this invisible killer,” said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan in a statement. “That’s why, in London, we have launched the world’s first ultra low emission zone, expanded our air quality monitoring network and taken ambitious steps to electrify and expand public transport. After the first four months of ULEZ, more than 75 per cent of vehicles in central London ow meet these tough standards. Cities are leading the efforts to tackle pollution with innovative solutions, and I’m pleased to join mayors around the world in signing this declaration to help deliver clean air for all.”

C40 members have already taken concrete and effective measures to begin converting to a carbon-free economy, including signing on to a Global Green New Deal on Wednesday; 30 of 94 member cities have already moved past their emissions peaks while still seeking economic growth, and different groups of cities have committed to creating carbon-free transit zones and aggressively pivoting toward electric buses. Others have agreed to significant benchmarks: zero-emission mass transit systems by 2030, making all new buildings zero-emission by 2030, and diverting 70 percent of waste from landfills by 2030.

Individually, many of the signatories to this declaration have also piloted new solutions to cutting emissions: Paris is switching its bus and vehicle fleets to zero-emission vehicles, Mexico City has introduced incentives for heavy industry to switch to more sustainable energy solutions, and Los Angeles’s Green New Deal has introduced new policies on transportation and building.

C40 research found that if all 94 member cities cleaned their transport, buildings, and industry, it would cut greenhouse gases by 87 percent and avoid nearly 220,000 premature deaths every year.