Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Madrid has taken several steps to address its brown cloud, but that’s not the main reason air pollution decreased last year.
Madrid’s terrible air quality has long been a kind of sick joke. Located on a high plateau where atmospheric conditions routinely trap dirty air close to ground level in winter, the Spanish capital’s cap of daily smog is such a fixture that it even has its own quasi-affectionate nickname: La Boina, or “the beret.”
To the city’s credit, it has been pushing hard in recent years to cut car-use as a way of clearing the atmosphere. And this week, some good news finally arrived. According to new figures produced by activist group Ecologistas en acción, the Spanish capital’s air quality improved last year, giving the lungs of Madrid residents some degree of respite. But was the improvement just a fluke?
The report provides some insights that many cities could do well to understand. The improvements in Madrid’s air—and Spain’s in general—do not actually come from a fall in motor vehicle use but from other sources entirely. Indeed, reading between the lines provides a cautionary tale of the limitations of municipalities trying to tackle such issues alone.
First the good news. According to the report, gleaned from 700 air monitoring stations across Spain, 2.6 million fewer of the country’s 46.5 million inhabitants suffered from poor air quality—levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide dropped in Madrid and across the country. Given Madrid’s reputation for exceptionally polluted air—and a recent slew of measures proposed by the city to combat it—that’s an extremely positive trend.
But the dominant factor behind these winds of change was merely good luck. The country experienced a higher-than-average level of atmospheric instability last year, creating conditions under which pollutants were less likely to get trapped in air pockets in the lower atmosphere.
Spain itself can still take some credit, though: Ecologia en Accion suggests that the secondary cause for the air quality improvement was a drop in electricity generation using coal and other fossil fuels. From January to March 2015, Spain generated 15.5 percent of its electricity from coal. From January to December 2016, that figure dropped to 10.5 percent and should drop further with ongoing increases in the country’s wind power capacity.
This is promising, but there are other causes for concern. National consumption of gasoline and diesel rose for the first time in four years—despite a 90 percent rise in sales of electric vehicles in the Madrid region over the past four months—while Spain’s electricity consumption reached its highest level since 2008. These are arguably negative side-effects of something positive. After receiving a brutal knocking by the 2008 financial crisis, Spain’s economy is finally showing signs of recovery, as demonstrated in a rise in fuel consumption.
There’s still cause for concern that, if alternatives to road traffic aren’t more heavily promoted, then less favourable weather conditions could reverse Spain’s improvements in air quality. As it is, Spain witnesses 24,000 annual pollution-related deaths, and levels of some pollutants are already growing in places. Ozone levels have remained static or risen across the country, a situation exacerbated by generally hotter summers whose frequency is only likely to increase as global warming progresses.
At least the city of Madrid (the urban unit that sits within the wider ex-urban Madrid Region) is well aware of the toll taken by motor vehicle pollution. In a bid to improve the air in the urban core, it has tried all sorts of measures, including driving bans and free public transit during seasonal pollution peaks, barring motor vehicles from Madrid’s older sections, banning diesel, and improving bike infrastructure. The new report nonetheless reveals that genuinely turning the situation around may lie partly beyond the city’s control.
Every area of the wider Madrid region (except one small river basin) has pollution levels that exceed both national and WTO guidelines. Threaded as it is with highways, the region’s road network ensures that this high pollution is distributed far beyond the city limits. Simply using the outer beltway as a boundary beyond which more stringent anti-car measures can be put in place would not go far enough.
The city’s attempts to reduce motor traffic within its boundaries are a great example of a municipality trying to get to grips with poor air quality. This week’s report figures may show Spain moving in the right direction, but they nonetheless reveal that, when it comes to battling motor vehicle pollution, cities can’t stand alone.