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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Owen Groves

Best practice: Technology and policy for decoupling urbanisation and air pollution in developing countries

When William Blake wrote the words ‘these dark satanic mills’ in a poem that is now more familiar as the words to the hymn Jerusalem, England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. The modern market economy formed around the productive output of factories and mills, in what the political economist Karl Polanyi referred to as the Great Transformation (Harriss, 2000). The rural agrarian livelihoods of previous generations were replaced by city jobs in the industrial districts of growing urban centres. Blake’s words contrast the romantic view of an English rural idyll with new intensities of social and environmental burdens associated with the urban mills.

One of the most pervasive images of the Industrial Revolution is that of cities overshadowed by chimney stacks, pumping out blackened smoke. The blight of air pollution was not new to England, but during this period the city of London experienced marked localised climate change, with more fog and less sunshine (Brimblecombe, 1977). The impact on the health of the city’s population was also significant, causing high levels of respiratory disease and mortality. The connection between health and air pollution was dramatically illustrated after the December 1952 London smog killed at least 4000 people in seven days (Goodman et al., 2004).

In response to the London smog, the government of the United Kingdom instituted the Clean Air Act of 1956, which enabled ‘local authorities to establish smoke control areas’. Within control areas smoke from chimneys was banned, although bans were phased in and flexibility was allowed. The Act mandated the use of a range smokeless fuels as a substitute for the existing residential needs (UK Government, 1956). The Act is a clear case of a policy instrument promoting the use of particular technologies. Similar policies have been enacted in many developed countries.

There is general agreement that London’s air quality has improved considerably since the inception of the Clean Air Act of 1956. The Act was hailed as a great success, although there is less agreement on whether the improvement could have been achieved without this government intervention (Auliciems and Burton, 1973, Weatherley, 1974). The same can be said for other cities in developed countries, but in the developing world, less has been achieved (Portney, 1990). To bridge the gap, the World Bank launched the ‘Clean Air Initiative’, which is a knowledge-sharing network designed to encourage developing world cities to learn from the air quality successes in the developed world (World Bank, 2007).

The work presented here sets out to investigate how much developing countries can learn from developed countries when it comes to choosing the best technologies and policies to address the problem of air pollution. The investigation will be limit to urban environments. The city will be treated as an active source and sink of its own pollutants because although air pollution problems occur on many different scales from local to global (McGranahan, 2006) no one city can claim to be making no contribution. All cities must tackle these issues if sustainable development is to be achieved.

No two cities are exactly alike, but the human activities at play in the urban environment that lead to anthropogenic air pollution are broadly the same and remarkably similar to the activities that afflicted London in the middle of the last century. Here the key difference between cities then and now are reviewed, in particular the rapidity with which urbanisation is occurring in the developing world (United Nations, 2006) and the stages of development at which different pollution problems are experienced (Marcotullio, 2006).

With these defining issues in mind, three case studies have been chosen for cross-case analysis: Johannesburg, São Paulo and Mumbai. Each of the cities is a member of the ‘Clean Air Initiative’ and each has been experiencing rapid economic, population and air pollution growth. By exploring the possible technology and policy tools available and how these have been translated into air quality management strategies, it will be possible to assess whether these cities are aiming to meet public health needs, react to classical environmentalism (Lee, 2006a) or pursue sustainable development (WCED, 1987).

The concept of best practice needs to be viewed with an understanding that what might seem best is not always practical, possible or timely. Public policy is an area where compromise between many stakeholders and the limits of the public purse make this particularly true. These problems are even more acute in cities, as they must operate within the bounds of their mother nation. The aim of this study is therefore not to advocate the modern conception of sustainable development as best practice above all else. Instead the intention is to use the following questions to guide the formulation of best practice:


•           If past policies on air pollution have failed to deliver sustainable development in developed countries can they still be best practice for developing ones?

•           Are policies that are not primarily directed at air pollution capable of producing better air quality outcomes?

•           Do policies designed to meet short term public health goals also lead towards sustainable development?