Reducing pollution: a question of health

Barcelona repeatedly exceeds the maximum thresholds set out by both the EU and the World Health Organisation (WHO). A large part of the pollution we breathe in comes from motorised vehicles in the city. Because of this, initiatives such as Car-Free Day help make people aware that only a new mobility model can cut pollution, which causes 3,500 premature deaths every year in the Barcelona metropolitan area.

Nitrogen oxide, ozone and suspended particles are polluting elements that we all breathe in in Barcelona. They lead to respiratory illnesses, allergies and are risk factors for heart disease. The majority of these pollutants are generated by motorised vehicles and in the case of nitrogen oxide, 70% comes from diesel engines.

Barcelona has 9,285 cars per square kilometre, while London has just 1,654. The geography of the city (surrounded by Collserola, Montjuïc and the Besòs river) makes it harder for pollution to disperse.

Consequently, limiting the presence of cars is a much-needed measure to achieve a cleaner and healthier city. One of the aims is to reduce the presence of private vehicles in the metropolitan area by 21% compared to 2013 as it is the main cause of pollution.

Clean air is a right. Clean air is a very important benefit for health and so we must work from many angles to achieve air quality”, notes Dr. Joan Escarrabill, from the chronicity support programme at Hospital Clínic.

To do so, traffic restrictions need to be accompanied by other measures such as the reorganisation of public streets to prioritise pedestrians and non-motorised transport, a boost for means of transport which pollute less, promotion of the use of bicycles and public transport and the setting up an action plan for when pollution levels are high.

The experience of other cities

Over 200 cities in Europe have set out low emissions zones with restricted access for contaminating vehicles. Examples include Lisbon, Berlin and Stockholm, which have seen a 22% drop in the concentration of nitrogen oxide generated by diesel engines.

In London, a toll system is in place for vehicles wanting to access the city centre, resulting in a 12% drop in pollution.

Other experiences include those of Athens, where vehicles can circulate on alternate days according to whether their number plates have odd or even numbers, and Brussels, where a 50 km/ h speed limit operates whenever pollution levels are high.

One way or another, the world’s most populated cities are working to reduce pollution for one reason: it is a question of health.