Pollution and exceptional measures

In a bid to raise awareness about the Spanish capital’s dangerously high air pollution levels, on Friday Madrid City Hall implemented a one-day ban on downtown parking (link in Spanish). The move was in response to a recent peak in air-borne contamination, due in part to winter heating coming on in tens of thousands of apartments, a lack of rain, and no wind, and we can expect further, stricter, measures from now on.

City Hall has been criticized for not providing enough information about the decision, as well as for not coordinating (link in Spanish) with other institutions; some even say the measures were too drastic (link in Spanish). But the truth is that something should have been done a long time ago: this is the first administration to have the courage to do what needs to be done, based on the more than ample evidence. The move may have been unpopular, but it was necessary. The air monitors posted throughout the city are there for a reason, and when they show that for years pollution levels have far exceeded EU maximums, steps have to be taken.

We think air pollution is invisible, but as the photograph shows Madrid has a serious problem. Obviously, people are not collapsing in the street and dying: we’re not talking about a chemical attack here, but the medium-term consequences for our health are indeed serious: respiratory disease, allergies, and other ailments.

The problem is that we tend to think of air pollution as something we can no longer do anything about: it goes with the territory; it’s the price we have to pay for the lifestyle we so enjoy. But it doesn’t have to be like that, and giving up the fight comes at a much higher price than many of us are prepared to meet.

Sure, not being able to park in downtown Madrid is a hassle. Having to change your travel plans due to restrictions is a bother, and more so if the authorities have not coordinated their plans as well as they could, given that there is no such precedent. It’s possible that the exercise could have been carried out more efficiently, that more warning could have been given, and more care taken not to cause so many problems for some people.

But we also need to remember that parking in downtown Madrid is always a hassle, and perhaps we should save our criticisms, given that this is the first time the authorities have taken such steps. The point is that these measures were more than justified: nobody is dying yet from our polluted air, but unless something is done to reduce air-borne pollution, much of it generated by motor vehicles, then our health will suffer. Madrid may not be the world’s dirtiest city, but its pollution levels are too high, and action is required, drastic action, and it seems only logical that City Hall should take the initiative.

We have to start realizing that the current situation is unsustainable and will require big changes to our habits. A large amount of the pollution we inhale comes from the exhausts of our cars, and which we use extremely inefficiently. By focusing on motor vehicles, we can bring about tangible change. The problem is that we have come to think of certain habits as inalienable rights. But when those habits start to threaten public health, they can no longer be enjoyed. We have to start understanding that we can use motor vehicles more sensibly and efficiently, while at the same time believing that air pollution cannot be tackled.

The problem is right under out noses, literally, and urgent measures are required. But until now, no politician in Spain has had the courage to try to tackle air pollution for fear of arousing the anger of motor vehicle owners: it’s not seen as a vote winner.

Madrid’s air quality is dreadful. The measures to improve it will be unpopular, they will be inconvenient, and they will restrict our movements. But to do nothing is simply irresponsible.

Either we start to raise awareness in society that it is ESSENTIAL to do something, or we are going nowhere. I have said this on Twitter, and I am saying it here in greater detail. What’s more, my support for the measures taken by Madrid City Hall do not mean that I necessarily endorse the politics or program of the capital’s administration, but I take my hat off to Mayor Manuela Carmena for having had the courage to take unpopular decisions, but ones that should have been taken many years ago. This is how problems start to be solved. And this problem, despite the efforts of some to downplay it, is very serious.

All of which means that the residents of Madrid better get used to measures such as this, because they are desperately needed. We can only hope that the authorities in charge of the capital continue to have the political courage to take these measures.

(En español, aquí)