Santa lost his way in 2016 northern hemisphere smog

Toxic: St Paul’s Cathedral is just visible through the smog in London in 2011. Cities worldwide are dealing with air pollution and the move is being lead by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. (Leon Leal, AFP)

Toxic: St Paul’s Cathedral is just visible through the smog in London in 2011. Cities worldwide are dealing with air pollution and the move is being lead by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. (Leon Leal, AFP)

Turns out that there is an upside to having your festive season in the southern hemisphere; you get to breathe. That fact should cancel out having to reconcile images of an old white man surrounded by snow with the reality of 40°C heat and no clouds.

The heat means you didn’t spend the festive season suffocating on sulphur and a cocktail of other pollutants. This contamination made living in our opposing hemisphere at the end of 2016 an unhealthy occupation.

In Delhi, the government has been looking at proposals to shut down all fossil fuel power plants in a 300km radius of the city. Air pollution is so bad that its chief minister called the city a “gas chamber” and slashed bus fares by 60% to get people out of their cars.

Similar measures were taken in other large cities. Cars are the enemy; they emit high levels of toxic gases in cities that weren’t built to channel away those emissions. During the worst times, on alternate days Paris banned all cars with odd-numbered or even-numbered plates from driving in the city. It also made public transport free on the days with the worst levels of air pollution. Brussels reduced its maximum speed limit to 50km/h to lower car emissions.

The dreary blanket of clouds that sits over Europe for much of its winter traps pollutants from industries and cars, causing them to float across the continent.

Parts of the French press have blamed “German air” for their predicament, and the peers in Britain have blamed “French air” for the suffocating pollution.

The historical blame game hides a slightly better situation from the levels of pollution that used to bedevil the continent. Four days of toxic smog in London in late 1952 — dubbed the “great smog of London” — killed 4 000 people and made 100 000 sick.

In China a similar growth path — a heavy reliance on burning fossil fuels — has created a toxic soup that hangs over half a billion people. Media in Beijing have called its problem an “airpocalypse”. It’s so bad that people are forced to wear masks and breathing equipment indoors. Over Christmas large parts of central and northern China were on “red alert” level for air pollution. Pictures of the pollution show a yellow-grey sky hanging low across hundreds of cities.

The problem in China has been so bad that tens of thousands of “smog refugees” left Beijing to spend their holidays with family in the cleaner countryside. A picture of 400 students writing their exams outside on a sports field, covered with so much grey smog that only five were visible from any given point, went viral on the Chinese social network Weibo.

Images like this have made smog a political issue in countries across the northern hemisphere. The Chinese government has responded to the intense public outcry by investing heavily in renewable energy and shutting down factories on days with heavy pollution. Mayoral elections in Mexico City, Rome, Paris, London and Delhi have all included debates on air pollution and the remedies.

That political necessity has seen cities take the global lead in fighting air pollution and its intrinsically connected problem of climate change. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which includes South Africa’s largest metros, is seen as doing more on these two issues than most national governments.

But people in the southern hemisphere shouldn’t rejoice either. Winter is coming and with it the blanket of cold air that traps dirty air close to the ground. Johannesburg and Cape Town have some of the worst air quality in the world, and the United Nations says some 20 000 people die in South Africa every year as a result of air pollution.

Sipho Kings

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