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How nice is to breath clean air and be far-sighted

There is silver lining to the quarantine and isolation measures as a result of the pandemic. It made us understand how quickly the pollution levels can decrease. In May, when quarantine restrictions decreased in Europe, CitiPlat spoke with those who know how to cut down emissions.

During the global lockdown due to Covid-19, the world saw a major reduction in travel, be it via cars, ships, or planes. Industrial businesses also slowed down drastically. As a result, there was a 17 per cent decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions, as reported by the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The reduction in pollutant emissions in urban areas due to slowdown in car travel is not significant enough to be seen on a global scale, but only locally. However, local solutions are exactly what we should focus on to reduce emission.

Identifying the impact of road transport on air quality is a complex endeavour. Ario Alberto Ruprecht, consultant and researcher in the field of pollution, explains: “It’s not easy to achieve data on vehicles, because it really depends on driving style and the streets. If we drive on the highway at a speed of 130 km/h at most, the pollutant production is greatly reduced. On the contrary, when there are traffic issues, for example during peak hours in the cities, carbon with other pollutants emissions is much higher”.

Travel restrictions have had a dramatic effect on carbon and other pollutant productions. According to Ruprecht, “In a 2011 study in Milan, then repeated with the City of Milan Agency for Mobility Environment Territory, we saw how the particulate matter toxicity could be reduced in the restricted traffic zone and the pedestrian area of Duomo square. There has been a decrease of black carbon, which is a particulate matter component, and we noticed an improvement of air quality of the 47percent, and of the 60 percent in the pedestrian area”.

Ruprecht says that, in terms of mass, we breathe more or less the same quantity of particulate matter but it is far less toxic. The reduction in traffic has no only led to a decrease in black carbon and other particulate matter, but also a decrease in carbon and a higher reduction of greenhouse gases.

Between Copenhagen and Milan

In the province of Milan, road transport is the second biggest source of carbon production after non-industrial combustion, responsible for the emission of 4.330 tons of carbon per year.

The Po Valley area geography makes the air difficult to circulate but Milan is trying to reduce road transport and car circulation trough the Strade aperte (Open streets) plan, which was adopted for economic recovery after the pandemic lockdown. The plan provides for new cycling routes, the increase of streets with a moderate rate of spread and the creation of more pedestrian areas and cycle paths in residential areas. “We are making more than 30 kilometres of cycle paths,” explained the Councillor for Mobility and Public Works for the City of Milan, Marco Granelli. The goal is to have more protected and accessible streets by offering new public areas and promoting travels by foot, bike and scooter, with an offer that is additional and alternative to public transport and private car.

There are examples of positive changes that are taking place. Copenhagen is an example in this respect. In 2010, the Danish capital drafted a plan to become the first world’s zero-emissions capital city by 2025. Forty two percent of the local mobility is already sustainable and could reach 60 percent by next year.

According to Klaus Bundgaard of the Climate Secretariat, which is responsible for developing and coordinating the climate agenda in Copenhagen realized through CPH2025 Climate Plan, “50 percent of transports in our city is by bicycle, including people who comes from other municipalities. There are many train lines to Copenhagen in the region, but the municipality is trying to improve the use of bicycles even for those who comes from the nearby cities”.

Bundgaard says the city has extended a wide network called The Super Cycle Highway, that makes it easier to pedal long distance. Many people have a 15 kilometres commute every day to come and leave the city.

Only a few electric cars

It would need the reconversion of the car industry to enact such important changes definitively. The health crisis showed us clearly that our reality can quickly change. The most sensitive point is about the employment of those who work in the car industry and depend on its existence. The key should be a smart transition, capable of change without causing an immediate loss of job.

According to some studies, the transition to electric cars could mean in Italy the loss of thirty thousand jobs. They would be professionals as know today. This does not mean we have to be pessimists but that we must put in place initiatives for relocation and workforce training.

“The automotive industry is constantly evolving” says Andrea Donegà, secretary of the engineering union FIM-CISL in Lombardy, which is Italy’s most industrialized region. He continues, “A lot of technology has been introduced both in the production process and inside the vehicles”. While the transition cannot be immediate, this conversion to electric cars must be planned and implemented carefully to avoid serious impacts on employment and helping the market to absorb the cars that will be produced.

He believes a hasty transition to electric car industry is not a viable solution because it is an industry that needs a lot of investment. Today, electric cars make up less than 10% of the entire vehicle fleet in Europe.

What could be the times for a reconversion, especially in big cities? Giuseppe Berta, an industry historian at Bocconi University in Milan, claims it will take about five years to have some cities become a test facility for this kind of mobility.

Moreover, according to Berta, a radical transformation would also require important change in consumer habits. Urban traffic volumes and rhythms must be reviewed to remove the congestion in peak hours. During the last few months, even if for a short period, Covid-19 limited traffic volumes, forcing people to work from home.

Berta identifies two absolutely necessary steps. The former is to “think about mobility industry rather than car industry”. The latter is to be aware that all of this could only be possible with “a total transformation of society and its economic structure”. According to this point of view, the remote working experimented during the pandemic could be a help to embark on this journey.

Cars to share

According to Ruprecht, “Working from home could be a small but perhaps great revolution, especially in regards to traffic congestion at peak times. Moving with public or private means of transport involves in any case an expenditure of energy, which in turn causes an increase in the production of greenhouse gases.

Moreover, for the car industry, remote working could be a limitation that would add to the change in society's perception of the car. “Cars will always be necessary,“ explains Donegà, “indeed, the more we move away from urban centres, the more the demand for cars increases”. However, in general, we are already witnessing a change in people’s conception of owning car, which is no longer at the top of people's needs and priorities. Donegà believes it is now becoming a commodity that people do not necessarily want to own because it costs too much, but to share or rent. This will also have repercussions on production and on the market.

In this moment brought on by pandemic restrictions, the car industry has two rather urgent problems: emptying the storage yards, full of cars produced before the crisis that remain unsold, and finding the money to start the process of change. Berta emphasizes, “You can not restart the industry if first you do not resolve the issue of unsold cars and then it is difficult to think about the transition to electricity, which requires substantial investment, when the economic and financial capacity of the industry is blocked by the virus.”

Donegà uses Volkswagen as an example, which stopped production of two models, Golf and Tiguan, because the demand had dropped drastically and the warehouses were full. In Italy, too, car sales in 2020 collapsed, according to Donegà. In the first quarter 50 percent reduction, in April 98 percent reduction in sales. The cars registered in April were 4,725 compared to 171,467 in the same month of 2019.

Professor Berta predicts that in the next few months, there could be a blockage of private mobility and then an increase in sales of unsold thermal motor vehicles. Only the rare few with financial means could instead contribute to the conversion of private mobility. The city of Copenhagen itself, which we have cited as an example of a potential transition, is experiencing a great contradiction in regards private electric transport, as opposed to bicycle transport. Klaus Bundgaard explains electric car owners make up two percent of the population because of a decision made by the previous national government, which took away tax relief and consequently stopped the electricity market.

Political choices are an important factor, for better or for worse, at a local level. Chiara Lorenzin, lawyer and co-founder of the Italian non-profit organization Cittadini per l'Aria, speaks about the difficulty of being head by local authorities when it comes to advocating for clean air. She says, “Often it is the administrators themselves who do not have the perception of the problem. This is perhaps the main difficulty“. For Lorenzin, on a political level, there are many interests at stake. She continues, “That's why we're working to ensure that the environment is at the centre of political discourse at the next municipal elections. We would like the candidates to discuss these issues, telling people what they think and what they intend to do, so that they can vote on the basis of their environmental awareness“.

Where to start the reconversion?

Cittadini per l'Aria started its activity in Milan, but is the Italian economic capital the most suitable, on a national level, to start a conversion process and arrive at a sustainable mobility model? According to Berta, the process could be more easily implemented in medium-sized cities, where a “much more calibrated and user-sized“ service could be created.

Here too, Copenhagen could serve as an example. The municipal administration has supplied 85 percent of its employees with electric cars for private use. “In principle, electric vehicles are used for shorter journeys and hydrogen vehicles for longer journeys,“ explains Bundgaard, “although public transport could also be used here. In general, however, it seems to me that the public is very satisfied. I have heard of some people who travel by electric car even though they live 50 km from the centre.”

According to the scientific studies of the Tyndall Centre, an immediate and unprecedented transformation of energy distribution and use at global level, but following a local logic, will be needed to achieve the climate targets. In essence, national governments and local governments will need to raise awareness among their citizens and include small, low-carbon technologies in their transport systems, which are cheaper, have lower investment risks and have more room for improvement. The use of these technologies should facilitate a faster transition to decarbonisation.

In other words, we are talking about local solutions, capable of exploiting the opportunities offered by globalisation to spread quickly and make a difference. The implementation of these technologies is faster, so innovations and improvements can be brought to the market relatively quickly, giving governments a solid, even motivational, basis to strengthen climate policies.

To increase the development of small-scale actions in cities and suburbs around the world, it is essential to motivate citizens, involve them in initiatives and make them feel part of new conversion projects, eliminating the idea of imposed and due behaviour from the collective imagination.

By MICRI students Tiziano Bergo, Giulia Cogoni, Giulia Pagani, Chiara Passalacqua, Selmani Rezarta (*)

(*) MICRI is the Master in Communication for International Relations at IULM University, Milan, Italy

Coordination and Italian editing by Emanuele Valenti - English editing by Mina Zahine


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