Now more than ever, the world’s major cities are faced with air pollution that threatens the health of their inhabitants. But to ensure protection for all, policies to improve air quality must now take into account social and environmental inequalities.
Studies conducted in the United States and Europe say ethnic minorities and people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are more vulnerable to fine-particle pollution.
According to 2016 estimates, 56% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in high-income countries do not meet World Health Organization (WHO) air-quality limits. In metropolises in low- and middle-income countries, this rate increases to 97%.
Moreover, local greening policies implemented by communities do not benefit all populations equally, points out a scientific article published on Aug 6 in the journal “Nature Communications”.
“Urban greening cannot compensate for systemic injustices that lead to disproportionate burdens in environmental health, and therefore, green infrastructure investments need to be balanced with other efforts to ameliorate air pollution injustices,” write the authors of the study.
These observations are based on the analysis of various studies published in recent years. Research published last April in “Science Advances” shows that Black, Hispanic and Asian people are significantly more exposed to pollution than the rest of the population in several major United States cities.
“Blacks are exposed to greater-than-average concentrations from source types contributing 78% of exposure. Hispanics and Asians are disparately exposed to PM2.5 from 87% and 73% of sources, respectively,” outlines that study.
In the US, this phenomenon could, at least in part, be explained by residential segregation, particularly that linked to “red-lining”, a discriminatory housing policy that began in the 1930s.
Conducted in Maryland’s Baltimore and then expanded to 37 urban areas across the country in a second phase, the research shows how patterns of residential segregation have contributed to an uneven distribution of green infrastructure and the increased presence of pollution, flooding and urban heat islands.
‘Environmental inequalities’ in Europe
The link between air pollution and social inequalities is also apparent in Europe. A study published in 2017 in 16 major European cities suggested that from one city to another, city dwellers living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are more affected by poor air quality.
Another study published in 2015 in “Plos One” estimates that in Paris, people living in poor neighbourhoods are three times more likely to die than the average person following a major pollution spike – even though they do not necessarily live in the most polluted neighborhoods.
According to the study, this increased risk of mortality may be associated with less access to health services, as well as poorly insulated housing and/or workplaces.
These links are complex to establish, insofar as multiple forms of discrimination are factors as well as the geographical and socioeconomic situation of the populations.
In sociology, the environmental risk factors on the health of individuals is defined by the term “environmental inequalities” or “ecological inequality”.
“Ecological issues are not independent of social issues. Populations are not equal in the face of environmental risks, in terms of both vulnerability and responsibility,” explains French economist Éloi Laurent in an article published in April.
“And, as the Yellow Vests crisis in France has shown, policies to combat climate change cannot ignore considerations of social justice.”