Greening the Islands Foundation

Air Pollution and Health: how islands can avoid repeating the mistakes of others

Over the past few decades, the ‘Western model’ of growth, symbolised by the permeation of concrete buildings, cars and a focus on functionality has been replicated worldwide. As urbanisation and globalisation spread to islands, the issues of air pollution and its detrimental impacts on health have taken centre stage. Islands, subjected to pressures to follow this ‘standard’ model of development have often found themselves victim to this restrictive model of development, leading to rising air pollution with significant negative health implications.


Air pollution has profound implications for human health, stemming from various pollutants found in the air we breathe. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5), tiny particles often emitted from vehicles and industrial processes, can penetrate deep into the lungs, exacerbating respiratory conditions and increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Nitrogen oxides, primarily from vehicular exhaust and power plants, can irritate the respiratory system and reduce lung function. Ground-level ozone, formed when sunlight reacts with pollutants like volatile organic compounds, can trigger asthma and other respiratory issues. Meanwhile, sulphur dioxide, released from burning fossil fuels, can cause respiratory problems and irritate the eyes. There are also natural sources of air pollution, such as fine dust and sea spray.


Each of these pollutants, while distinct in origin and effect, collectively contribute to a deteriorating public health landscape, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive air quality management. This dangerous cocktail of chemicals, which we inhale, shortens our lifespan and contributes to a diminishing wellbeing. The World Health Organisation estimates that ambient outdoor air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019 alone. The strong public health implications of air pollution are dire, measurable and can not be ignored.


Islands and islandness – are ports and airports victims of unavoidable pollution?

Islands require connection with the outside world via sea or air. Consequently, to varying degrees, islands have port infrastructure which, given the overwhelming dominance of fossil-fuelled shipping, makes them main point sources of air pollution. Ports, for all their economic significance, are therefore major sources of air pollution: the constant docking and undocking of ships release vast amounts of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Add to this the incessant movement of cargo vehicles and cranes to and from ports, and you have a recipe for a localised but intense pollution hotspot.


Residents living near ports are often found to suffer from respiratory ailments, a direct consequence of this pollution. Cruise liner ships, a main economic injection of tourism for islands, also often stay in the harbour and emit vast amounts of pollution to keep the power going, polluting the very harbour they are berthing in. Additionally, some islands are located along major shipping routes, often suffering from air pollution emitted far from their shores: many Mediterranean islands suffer from air pollution emitted by passing ships.


Airports are also other main sources of such pollution. While essential in maintaining a connection to the rest of the world, aircraft emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons. Ground support equipment, often running on diesel, further exacerbates the problem. The result? Communities near airports not only bear the brunt of noise pollution but also face heightened risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.


Cars and Islands

The personal car, a symbol of freedom and convenience for many, has become one of the primary culprits of urban air pollution. Tailpipe emissions, laden with carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and fine particulate matter, have been directly linked to ailments ranging from asthma to heart attacks. While convenient, cars are often seen as main modes of transport on islands which could strongly benefit from active commuting options such as public transport including buses and ferries, cycling and walking.


Distances are often much smaller than on the mainland, with amenities and work sites located in close proximity to home. Yet, many islands suffer from repeating (often broken) models elsewhere, relying extensively on car transport and providing little in terms of infrastructure for alternative infrastructure.


Islands as a model for healthier communities

We therefore have a situation where islands often try to emulate models that can not and should not be applied to their context. Instead of trying to emulate polluting development models found on the mainland, islands can serve as a testbed for a society that focuses less on trying to emulate larger landmass communities and more on appreciating their uniqueness, context and topography. Building active commuting transport is not a luxury, but a necessity – one should not focus on merely ‘providing infrastructure’ but providing strong incentives to eliminate the need for car use as much as possible. There are no better places to test out such a radical departure from conventional models than islands, where proximity makes such options not only viable but attractive.


Addressing the pollution from ports, airports, and cars requires a multi-pronged approach. Investing in cleaner technologies, such as electric ground support equipment at airports or promoting electric vehicles for short-distance cargo transport at ports, can make a difference. Additionally, the electrification of ports will eliminate the need for large ships to keep emitting harmful emissions in port areas, exposing nearby populations to unacceptable damage to their health and wellbeing. This, however, would depend on the sources of electricity generation – which should further incentivise islands to turn to green energy to support their power and economies, and become far less dependent on fossil fuel extraction and transport.


Island communities in the 21st century therefore have a choice: to repeat the mistakes of communities worldwide that move to car dependence and rely on fossil fuels, with mounting health consequences, or choose to go their own way, adapting a better model that focuses on green energy and active commuting that appreciates their context. This would lead to better health outcomes, lower air pollution and improved wellbeing, and may well serve to preserve a better environment for current and future generations. Should the latter be selected, mainland communities may well choose to emulate island communities as exemplars.

John Paul Cauchi

John Paul Cauchi

On Key

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