Love Milan, Hate the Pollution, So What Can We Do Now?

Love Milan, Hate the Pollution, So What Can We Do Now?
  • 2023-24

When I first arrived in Milan, I used to wonder why many families left the city at the weekend. While the mountains and the beach have their attractions, so too does the city.

In London, where I worked previously, the weekend was when you most wanted to be there.

Then slowly I started to understand. Yes, it was partly for the pleasures of sea and mountains, but it was also the need to breathe fresh air.

Many of you will have enjoyed the fresh air during ‘ski week’. Here in Milan, the poor air quality hit record levels.

The weather app regularly shows Milan to be in the red zone – unlike most of the rest of Europe, which tends to be colour-coded yellow (moderate), green (fair) or blue (good).

Last week, Milan went into the purple zone, registering the highest levels of pollution, graded as ‘Extremely Poor’.

Data from a private monitoring group IQAir briefly rated Milan the third most polluted city in the world after Dhaka in Bangladesh and Lahore in Pakistan. The group labelled the air in the city ‘unhealthy’.

Milan’s level of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, was measured at 25 times above the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

The levels have since reduced, and we can argue about the rankings – as the Mayor has justly done – but the relative readings are a distraction. The point is that, in itself, Milan is very polluted city. No one disagrees that the city has far exceeded the PM2.5 limit in recent days.

The reasons for this are complex, and involve several factors.

The region is bounded by mountains on three sides, reducing the wind speed and the natural ability of the air to disperse harmful particulates.

The corridor of heavy industry across Lombardia, together with the use of agricultural waste, forms a toxic cocktail of pollutants.

Lastly, unseasonably high temperatures and lack of rainfall have exacerbated the crisis.

Poor air quality was linked to over 50,000 premature deaths in Italy in 2020, mostly in the Milan region. And this was when people were wearing masks outside because of Covid!

The Regione has responded, introducing limits on heating homes, on spreading sewage on crops, and on the use of heavy motor vehicles during the day, to supplement the Area B/C initiative.

It is clear that governments need to do more to combat the threat of air pollution. They cannot change the region’s geography, but they can insist on improved industrial and agricultural practices, fewer vehicles on the roads, with more stringent targets, and tax incentives for renewable fuels.

But what can we do as individuals – aside from voting for parties that support such changes? Surely the problem requires collective action?

Five years ago, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather, which explains clearly what individuals might do.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge the problem, and that we are entangled in it, that it is not a distant or abstract phenomenon. We must feel it emotionally and not just recognise it with our reason.  

Usually we like to identify heroes and villains as part of an urgent narrative, and so become emotionally involved. However, the environmental crisis is not like that. Its effects are often invisible, its time-scale slow, and there are few obvious heroes to root for or villains to point the finger at.

But tasting the air in Milan some days vividly illustrates the problem.

Safran Foer cites and reliably references some key statistics:

  • 59% of land capable of growing crops is used to grow food for livestock (animals farmed for food)
  • More than 30% of all fresh water goes on livestock
  • 70% of antibiotics is used for livestock
  • There are around 30 farmed animals for every human on the planet – including 65 billion chickens eaten every year
  • 80% of deforestation is to clear land for livestock
  • Methane (with 34 times the global warming potential of CO2) and nitrous oxide (310 times more damaging than CO2) – are primarily created by livestock
  • Nitrous oxide is emitted largely by livestock urine, manure and fertilisers  
  • If cows were a country (according to the UN), they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the United States
  • Livestock are responsible for 51% of annual global emissions – more than all cars, planes, buildings, and industrial plants put together
  • The message is clear – what we can do as individuals is eat less meat and consume fewer dairy products, perhaps cutting them out altogether

Changing how we eat will not be enough on its own to save the planet, but we cannot save the planet without changing how we eat,’ insists Safran Foer.

According to Foer, the three highest-impact things individuals can do are:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet
  2. Reduce air travel
  3. Reduce travel by car

Behaviour is hard to change. But Covid showed that we can change our behaviour for the common good.

The book changed my behaviour.

I had already made a choice to relinquish my car, and use exclusively public transport. After reading Safran Foer’s book in 2019, I was persuaded to give up dairy products, switching to soya or oat milk where possible.

I cannot claim to be a vegetarian, but I have drastically reduced my meat consumption to around once or twice a month.

I recognise that it’s easier for me to give up driving when my two boys are grown up. This may be impractical for parents with young children.

But we can choose to take fewer journeys by car, and use public transport more. We may need to take flights but we can take fewer long-haul flights.

And what is the school doing?

The school has a thriving garden club. The students are involved in many environmental initiatives. We have a set of Sustainability Goals, which we regularly revisit.

As a key feature of the new school building we plan to instal not merely an air filtration system but an air purification system, involving the use of plants in every classroom, with pure air pumped and circulated around the building. We are proud to be one of the first schools to invest in this new technology.

In short, we should not feel powerless as individuals or institutions. There are things we can do to help.

If we can recognise responsibility for the problem, we can take responsibility for the solution. And individual action multiplied = collective action.

It might be hard to care about the lives of millions in the abstract. But it’s not hard to care about the lives of one or two people, especially when they are your children.

The new generation of students is acutely aware of the environmental crisis. In their consciousness we have hope for Milan’s future, and for the world’s.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

Best International School - International School Milan - Top International School

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