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Clear thinking: air pollution and the meetings industry

It was a few years ago now, but I can still remember the elderly couple sitting across the aisle from me on the shuttle bus to Stavanger and the look of happy astonishment on their faces.

They were from Beijing, I gathered, but it was not the charming Norwegian houses, with their wooden panels and slate roofing, or the abundant, grassy scenery that captivated them, but the sky.

Its blueness, to be exact. If not a revelation, it was certainly a novelty. ‘It has been a long time’, they told the ebullient bus driver, ‘since we have seen the sky this colour. It is so….blue’.

As a new study reveals how chronic exposure to high levels of air pollution could be linked to a decline in cognitive intelligence, the pressure on cities to reduce pollution intensifies.

It’s easy to imagine this is a problem that primarily affects the developing world – 14 cities in the WHO’s top 20 most polluted cities are in India – but few of us has room for complacency.

Courtesy WHO

 

Nine out of 10 people on the planet breathe polluted air. It accounts for half-a-million early deaths in Europe every year, and around 300,000 in the Americas.

Even Scandinavia, which has the lowest average levels of pollution in Europe, is not immune. In Bergen, Norway’s second biggest city, the burning of logs in people’s homes is the main culprit.

As awareness of air pollution increases, it will be interesting to see if, and how, this will affect the meetings industry. Will some cities simply become off-limits to health conscious delegates? Will air quality figure more prominently in bid documents or legacy programmes? If nothing else, will the number of conferences pertaining to air pollution increase?

A few years before my visit to Norway, I was in Shanghai for a week-long conference. It was a fascinating excursion in many ways – as though history were being played out before my eyes.

The pace and scale of development transcended anything I had previously thought possible. It looked like rampant capitalism and yet the long-arm of the state was never far away.

The extent to which the city had consumed the surrounding countryside was almost indecent, but there was that unmistakeable ‘thrill of the new’ about it all, especially when traditions clashed.

One of my abiding memories is walking down one of the side-streets off the Bund and watching men erecting bamboo, rather than steel, scaffolding against an eight-storey building.

Another memory is the sky. It’s sickly hue, to be exact. All week it remained a sort of yellowish grey: the air thick with dust and fumes, sunset a puce agglomerate of vapours.

As a delegate, it could have put me off going back to Shanghai, but China has responded to public pressure to solve the problem and its worst offending cities have showed spectacular improvements with pollution levels falling by 30 per cent between 2013 and 2016.

Draconian measures – including a nationwide cap on coal use – saw pollution levels in Beijing, once a byword for ‘smog’, fall by 54 per cent and the city drop from 40th place to 187th place in the WHO’s worst cities rankings. For sure, China’s capital still has a big problem with air pollution – but hopefully for the elderly couple on the bus to Stavanger blue skies are no longer such a rarity.