01 Jul 20

FEATURE: How clean is the air we breathe?

More than 90 percent of people worldwide live in areas that exceed healthy air quality guidelines, and more than half of those live in areas that don’t meet even the minimum air quality targets. The list of health problems and fatalities grows year on year as a result of air pollution. So, how clean is the air we breathe?

Formula E promotes electric mobility and alternative energy solutions to contribute to reducing air pollution and the fight against climate change, in partnership with the UN Environment Programme's #BeatAirPollution campaign.

Alongside our partners and some of the leading companies in the world, we are advocating the global adoption of clean mobility by enhancing technologies, working with cities to improve infrastructure and raising awareness of the benefits of electric vehicles - one of the most effective means of tackling urban air pollution.

The issue is among the largest environmental risks to health today.

How clean is the air we breathe?

More than 90 percent of people worldwide live in areas that exceed healthy air quality guidelines, and more than half of those live in areas that don’t meet even the minimum air quality targets.

The list of health problems and fatalities grows year on year as a result of air pollution. So, how clean is the air we breathe?

Ambient air pollution exists in the form of ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter.

Some of these are naturally occurring, thanks to volcanoes, forest fires and dust storms, but the majority is human-made. Burning fossil fuels, vehicle exhaust emissions and agricultural activities like crop burning and chemical fertilisers all contribute.

Why the air we breathe is not as clean as we think

The effect on our health

A 2017 report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation established that air pollution is the fifth-highest death risk factor posed to humans of all ages and genders, globally - directly linked to deaths estimated at seven million people worldwide every year.

One of the components of outdoor or ambient air pollution is PM2.5: particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. For context, one strand of human hair has an average diameter of 70 micrometers.

If the IHME study is isolated to children under the age of five, pollution moves from being the fifth highest death risk, to third and second for children aged 5-14.

The WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines states that long-term exposure for those living above an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 10 μg/m3 are at higher risk of mortality.

This means more than 90 percent of the world population is exposed to unhealthy air, with developing countries like India and Bangladesh having an average concentration eight times higher than the guidelines.

50 years on

Air pollution’s threat to health has been known for over half a century. On April 22nd, 1970 millions of Americans took to the streets in the first ever Earth Day to protest against the impact of decades of environmental damage and industrial pollution. As a result, by the end of 1970 in the US, the environmental protection act was founded and the Clean Air Act amendment signed.

Fifty years on, though average air quality may have improved on 1970’s standards, we’re still seeing the number of deaths as a result of air pollution increase yearly, especially in the developing world where a rapidly growing economy demands more energy with nations looking to fossil fuels as a quick way to meet these demands.

Tackling the issue

There are a variety of different initiatives being applied across the globe to raise awareness and combat air pollution; from educational programs about the dangers of pollution and support to move away from pollution heavy practices, ultra-low emission driving zones in cities like London, where vehicles that don’t meet emission standards face a daily charge, to government backed incentives that encourage the adoption of electric cars and clean energy.

Tech innovations are also likely to play a growing role in how we monitor air quality globally and tackle urban pollution. City-wide monitoring systems like these in Seoul, South Korea can provide local governments information on air quality levels around the city and help to inform decisions on traffic restrictions and improving public health.

Smog capturing devices that use ionisation tech can help produce smog-free air in public spaces, and anti-pollution paint that can be used on the outside of urban buildings to absorb the same amount of pollution as 30 trees.

Driving change

As forward thinking and useful as these innovations are, the majority of the change needed will come down to adapting the practices of everyday life, being aware of the damage they cause and switching to more efficient and cleaner processes.

One of those changes being the type of cars we drive. Out of the five most prominent sources of air pollution, vehicle exhaust emissions contribute to four of them.

A switch to electric cars requires rapid development and infrastructure. In the past, changes like this have looked to other industries, and the biggest development ground and advert for the cars we drive since the start of the 20th century is motorsport.

Many of the features and devices that are common in cars around the world today came from racing. Seat belts, disc brakes, the rear-view mirror and now in the new age of transport, Formula E is providing that space for the development of electric vehicles, showcasing their ability to perform and accelerate the switch. 

Some of the world's biggest car manufacturers make up the Formula E grid and since its inception in 2014, the data and developments that have come from the sport have already found themselves in the cars we drive on the road, improving the range of electric cars, the battery capabilities and charge time. Racing predominantly on street circuits in the heart of the cities has an added benefit aside from bringing motorsport closer to fans.

An air quality assessment taken from the Paris E-Prix in 2018, measuring particulate matter, showed that air pollution was reduced by two-thirds on the site and city streets of the event thanks to the reduction in petrol/diesel powered vehicles on the roads and Formula E’s initiative to encourage fans to use of public transport by not providing parking on site.

The devastating coronavirus pandemic and corresponding lockdown has simultaneously allowed us a sliver of hope for the future when it comes to the air we breathe.

A 75 percent drop in PM2.5 levels in Delhi and toxic emissions at major roads reduced by 50% in London, shows the impact that changes to our everyday lives can have on environmental issues.

Why we race

Air pollution poses a serious threat to our health around the world, the facts are known and more importantly the solutions are already available.

Formula E believes in a future where every car is powered by clean, renewable energy, with exhaust emissions and fossil fuel use consigned to the pages of history books and all of us, young or old, rich or poor, breathing cleaner air.

Find out how Formula E is racing for a cleaner future, faster...