Last week the combination of cold air, little wind, and no rain caused a thermal inversion in Madrid pushing air pollution over the limit set by the City last year.
As a result, the city’s Mayor activated the city’s emergency protocol which involved limiting speeds on the ring road around the city, banning parking in the center, and allowing only cards with even or odd numbered license plates to enter the city depending on the day of the month.
The good news is that the plan worked and in a few days air quality was back down to acceptable levels. The bad news is that her actions has unleashed a fire storm of criticism and even a lawsuit from the right wing Mayor of one of the suburban towns.
What happened in Madrid was the first time for such an event in Spain. Not the first time that air pollution goes above the limit but the first time that a democratically elected official has the courage to actually follow the approved emergency protocols.
The thing is that Manuela Carmena is not your average Mayor and is not, or was not even a politician until the last cycle of municipal elections.
What happened here politically is that a new political formation has emerged left of the traditional Socialist party in an example of the fractious politics that we are seeing all over the Western world.
In the Municipal elections, that party which is called Podemos (we can) reached out to leaders in civil society in Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities and encouraged the creation of large coalitions of diverse, left leaning groups to join with them at the local level. The coalition in Madrid is called Ahorra Madrid (Now Madrid) and Ms. Carmena was asked to lead it.
Carmena had spent almost 30 years as a Spanish Judge and led campaigns in Spain and around the world in favor of detainees and against corruption and the abuse of power. She has also been a member of the Spanish Communist Party although lately had become closer to the Spanish Socialists.
At 72 she has nothing to fear and is committed to doing the right thing for her city and its residents. When the cities pollution monitoring stations showed that level of Nitrogen Dioxide were going to high, she clearly felt that she had no choice but to enact the protocols.
Structural Problem with a solution
The situation in Madrid is similar to many cities in the world with huge numbers of people driving into the city center to work or do their christmas shopping from the suburbs. They typically drive alone and in Spain, at least, most of them drive cars with diesel engines.
Diesel engines give better fuel economy and therefore less co2 but do produce more specific types of pollution especially particulates of Nitrogen Dioxide which is very bad for human health.
The solution which is increasingly being adopted by cities around the world is to charge a toll or a congestion charge to encourage people to either use public transportation or car pools. Trials have found that even modest charges of about 1€ per day can have a big impact. In London its 8 pounds per day.
What also seems to make sense is to exempt electric vehicles from such charges as they produce no local air pollution and depending on the energy mix going to the metropolitan area’s energy grid, can even have a lower co2 footprint.