During the last month, a group of people took to the streets of London to promote awareness among the general public and decision makers on the effects of climate change. The ‘Extinction Rebellion’ or ‘XR’ for short, received widespread media attention alongside young climate change activist Greta Thunberg. During the same time, the clean air zone in Birmingham came into the limelight with many people voicing out their likes and dislikes.
The Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in Birmingham is a targeted area in the city center that will cover all the roads within the A4540 Middleway Ring Road, but not the Middleway itself. No vehicle is banned in the zone, but those which do not have clean enough engines will have to pay a daily charge to travel within the area if the relevant criteria are not met. It is expected that the Clean Air Zone will come into operation on 1 July 2020 which will operate throughout while charges will be applied daily.
With many residents voicing their displeasure in this controversial step and other climate change activists praising this notion, Birmingham Eastside met with Claudia Carter, an Associate Professor in the field of interdisciplinary environmental research and environmental governance to discuss this issue and find additional ways and means to curb air pollution.
She resembled the type of an ordinary lecturer one might just come across while strolling through university, but after meeting her and having a brief conversation about pollution, one realizes that she has an extraordinary commitment to the things she holds dear – the environment being the forerunner.
“I’m personally very much in for a car free city. I came to Birmingham in 2011 and one of the things I noticed as soon as I arrived is the air pollution well before it was a major news item. I’m sensitive to volatile organic compounds and particular matter (dust). I can smell it, I breathe it and it really becomes very uncomfortable,” she tells me.
“Lots of fresh air and experiencing nature as it was deepened my respect and love for all things natural and made me realize how little we need to be happy.”Claudia Carter
Originally from Germany, she has spent the last three decades in the UK researching environmental governance and sustainable development. Thinking back on the past and the recent visits, she says that there were fewer cars when growing up, but that air pollution is also a big issue in Germany. But the hiking and camping trips as a teenager has had a long-lasting impact on the deep connection with the environment.
“As a teenager, I went on hikes and camping trips. We had yurts and used fallen trees and rope for the structure; once we even camped in the freezing cold in a cave. But we always left the place the way it was. Lots of fresh air and experiencing nature as it was deepened my respect and love for all things natural and made me realize how little we need to be happy.”
“For many years I didn’t have a car, but we decided to buy one when my daughter was born. The car is rather old now and we only use it to see our distant relatives. So once the car is not fit for the road, we won’t replace it. My daughter also decided that she wouldn’t be taking the driving license”Claudia Carter
Coming back to the present, she is the type of lecturer who would find solutions we all can do rather than relying on the councils to do the work for us. “For many years I didn’t have a car, but we decided to buy one when my daughter was born. The car is rather old now and we only use it to see our distant relatives. Also, my daughter is grown up now. So once the car is not fit for the road, we won’t replace it. My daughter also decided that she wouldn’t be taking the driving license and we can use public transportation or rent a car if it’s really needed” she says rather proudly with a smile on her face.
The decision of not using the car had made her find alternative ways of doing the everyday chores. Using local shops for the weekly shopping and connecting with neighbors and taking part in local activities were some conscious decisions Claudia had done to be more environmentally efficient. Such steps seem long lost traits that need reviving.
“Sometimes, not having a car seems to make things a little less convenient but it actually makes us open to our own locality and builds community connections. The car has made us very independent, but it had cost forming friendships and communities in our own neighborhood,” replies Claudia when I ask about her missing her freedom to drive anywhere at any time.
The possibility of a car free city is only possible if the public transportation system is truly adequate (convenient and frequent) and if proper attention is given to the disabled and low-income families according to the professor. However, the fruits would be sweet with less noise and more space for trees which creates more space for people to meet and relax. “The issue is that Birmingham is quite slow in providing clean alternatives,” she remarks.
Taking the size of Birmingham into account, the forthcoming Clean Air Zone is unlikely to be enough to curb air pollution. More alternative ways are needed, and Claudia has a list of them beginning with developing more cycle routes. “Birmingham must do a lot more to encourage and support cycling. Although Birmingham is the second biggest city after London, many people live within a 10km radius of the center, which can be cycled easily in half an hour.”
“Birmingham has more canals than Venice and if the authorities will keep investing in turning canal paths into attractive and safe walking and cycling routes it could also be significant to help curb air pollution and support healthier commutes and lifestyles.”Claudia Carter
“Updating busses to the Euro 6 standard and minimizing the idling of diesel engines all help reduce air pollution. Public transportation is much more efficient than private vehicles because they fit more people into a single vehicle, so it reduces congestion and emissions. But it also depends on the fuel that public transport runs on. Diesel trains are good when they are running, but not when they are stagnant at the station with a working engine; and that is a problem at New Street station, with poor ventilation on top.
The canal network is a real asset for Birmingham remarked Claudia. “Birmingham has more canals than Venice and if the authorities will keep investing in turning canal paths into attractive and safe walking and cycling routes it could also be significant to help curb air pollution and support healthier commutes and lifestyles.”
Air pollution in Birmingham is one of the top challenges by Birmingham City Council with 900 premature deaths per year linked to this issue. The national (and European) standard for emissions has set a threshold for the average Nitrogen Dioxide particle level not to exceed 40 nanograms per cubic meter, Claudia points out that sometimes emission concentrations are beyond 70.
“The limit is set at 40ng because people tend to be worse off if that limit is exceeded, but the ideal mark to live in would be somewhere lower. These thresholds are set based on averages of negative impact observed; so, some people and also wildlife will be impacted by even lower emission levels or those constantly close to the threshold. And this is where knowledge about the natural cycles and ecosystems comes into play. How much human-induced pollution can be ‘absorbed’ and neutralized and when are we exceeding that capacity and get dragged along a downward spiral. In my view, we are on that downward spiral unless we really start planning with the multiple benefits of nature in mind and seriously reducing polluting actions.”
“If we negatively impact the air, soil and the animals, it will backfire on us in social and economic ways. We don’t appreciate how we rely on natural cycles. Many new development nibbles into habitats such as semi ancient forests which is the case of the HS2 project. Even small changes can be serious as certain functions can’t be sustained and some wildlife won’t be able to flourish and survive any longer. This is already happening for many areas across the UK but not given the same prominence as economic development, and this shows how politics and vested interests come into play.”
On the thoughts of the Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg being an eye-opener to the public, Claudia says the present generation had been able to go the distance and create awareness, something which the youth of the 80s and 90s couldn’t do. However, she fears that little thought would be given to sustainability and climate change when it stacks up against the repercussions of Brexit – if it would happen.
“The ruling conservative government says they will be one of the greenest governments ever, but the evidence is either lacking or on the contrary. Research in this area shows that the facts don’t stack up. Only a few politicians are really concerned about pollution and climate change as the priority challenge. Maybe it will be public pressure and changes in consumption – and stopping consuming way beyond necessity – that will force industries to produce better longer lasting goods in a less polluting way.”
‘Observe, Question, and Act’.Claudia Carter
With all these issues and plans happening around Birmingham, Claudia has three tips that every Brummie can do to tackle air pollution. ‘Observe, Question, and Act’.
The best way to curb the pollution according to Claudia is to be more observant about what actually happens around you (e.g. the amount of emissions during rush hour; the benefit of cooler temperatures near water and fresher cooler air near trees on a very hot summer afternoon; the dwindling numbers of bugs, beetles and butterflies, or the thinning morning chorus of garden birds). Second, don’t be afraid to ask questions. “Not seeing any bees for a long time is an observation and asking why that happens to get informed about the contributing factors. If we could then plant some suitable plants in our garden or on a window box or balcony, we can help pollinators; and then we are acting and fighting against pollution.”
Above all that, her final tip is about wanting less and being content with less. “I never aspired to be personally rich. Essentially, we need to become better connected within our social and natural environment and become ‘rich’ that way. That goes a long way to reduce pollution.”