Last century, London used to be synonymous with smog.
Today, few cities seem to be free of the problem.
Only this month, the authorities in Paris, desperate to deal with dangerous levels of air pollution in the city, tried to restrict the number of cars going in and out. Public transport was made free for a few days.
Weather conditions and air quality had combined to create a crisis. Even the Eiffel Tower was barely visible behind the white fog . On March 14, the level of PM10 particles per cubic metre in Paris reached 180 micrograms, more than twice the safe limit of 80 micrograms. (BBC News, 14 March 2014; The Economist, 17 March 2014).
In neighbouring Belgium, a smog alarm was raised and researchers found an innovative way to measure fine dust in the air using the strawberry plant; the leaves catch the dust and therefore may be a good way to measure air quality. (Flanders Today, 19 March 2014)
In China, where even skyscrapers are barely visible, the level of air pollution has reached crisis levels. One researcher suggested that it could create a 'nuclear winter', where it becomes difficult to grow plants and crops. Beijing's concentration of PM2.5 particles (small enough to enter the bloodstream and lungs) reached levels of 505 micrograms per cubic metre, about 20 times the recommended safety levels of 25. (China's toxic air problem, The Guardian, 25 February 2014)
Air quality is fundamental to human health. WHO, which has raised the alarm about pollution levels in China, has claimed there are known links between small particles of fine dust in the air and lung cancer. (Beijing smog, ABC Radio Australia, 26 February 2014)
In Paris, children, asthmatics and people with heart problems were advised to avoid going out. Philippe Martin, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy said air quality had become "an emergency and priority for the government". (BBC News, 14 March 2014)
Against this disturbing trend, we see the world continuing to urbanise and develop infrastructure and industry, all of which makes it harder to stem the problem of indoor and outdoor air pollution.
While the government in China is committed to tackling its pollution problems, it has also launched the 'National New-type Urbanization Plan', which sets out to build transport networks, urban infrastructure and residential real estate from now until 2020. (China reveals blueprint to expand urbanization, Financial Times, 17 March 2014)
Across the world, cities are projected to grow. McKinsey (How to Make a City Great), the management consultants, estimate that by 2030, 5 billion people -- 60 percent of the world's population -- will live in cities, compared with 3.6 billion today.
There is a philosophy which may enable us to develop the world economy without damaging the environment or threatening human health and wellbeing. This is the circular economy, an idea that is gaining traction worldwide; it calls for designing things in such a way that they can be recycled, reused or remanufactured, creating a healthy, non-toxic closed loop system. It puts less pressure on limited natural resources, greater onus on the use of renewable energy and stresses the importance of using non-toxic materials in manufacturing and recycling.
In Australia, where I will be involved in discussions about the topic at the end of this month, the circular economy is beginning to attract attention amongst business leaders and researchers.
There, the impact of air pollution in China can have a direct effect on its economy. If China caps its steel production, for example, to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the industry it will import less iron ore. Last year, China imported 820 million tonnes of iron ore -- 300 million tonnes of which were from Australia. (China Spectator, 13 March 2014)
This underlines the link between sustainability (including environmental and human health impact) with business goals and economic growth. We cannot afford the two to be separate; they must be inextricably linked.
Many businesses are working hard to develop products that have a positive impact on the environment and the planet -- as we do at our company. The circular economy provides a good broad framework for innovation: it puts people and planet at its heart while acknowledging we need to continue producing goods.
We are at a point in human history where it is clearer and clearer that we need to connect business goals with sustainability ones if the whole system is going to work. After all there is no point in raising living standards and building cities if people choke on it.