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Air of revolution: how activists and social media scrutinise city pollution

Air Pollution in Beijing, China

Tourists in masks take selfies during a heavily polluted day in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Photograph: Alexander F Yuan/AP


Powered by article titled “Air of revolution: how activists and social media scrutinise city pollution” was written by Beth Gardiner, for on Friday 31st January 2014 08.00 UTC

In Krakow, Poland, lawmakers recently banned the burning of coal to heat homes after activists pressured them with a Facebook campaign that drew 20,000 followers. Driven by a survey that showed the city’s air to be the third dirtiest in Europe, the small group of volunteers worked late into the evenings, on top of their day jobs, in an effort that had no funding at all until weeks after its big victory.

The relentless campaigner Simon Birkett, from London, messaged top European officials as they drafted important new air quality rules. Working alone, funded largely by his own savings, he tirelessly posts smog warnings, health studies and detailed analysis of pollution regulations, making himself one of the best sources of expertise on London’s air.

In Beijing, online posts from celebrities and ordinary people turned China’s poisonous smog from a little discussed issue to a top-level concern, and helped push officials to acknowledge the problem.

In cities around the world, social media has given committed air quality campaigners a powerful tool for drawing attention to an issue whose profile remains relatively low despite its big impact on urban dwellers’ health. While environment campaigners focus on climate change and health experts worry about obesity, alcohol and smoking; dirty air prematurely kills more than 6 million people a year, the World Health Organisation estimates.

The activists trying to change that say Facebook, Twitter and the like have given them an invaluable tool for amplifying their voices, engaging the public and getting the attention of elected officials. Some even take their own pollution readings and share them online. “When you get many supporters on Facebook and in social media, you become a real power, and politicians want to talk to you because they see they can reach voters,” says Andrzej Gula, of the Krakow Smog Alert.

Just a year after it launched, the group celebrated a major victory in November, when the regional parliament announced the ban on burning coal in home stoves. “Without social media, it wouldn’t have been possible,” says Anna Dworakowska, an activist with the group. The smog campaign used Facebook to share official pollution readings, explain the health effects of the city’s foul air, generate crowds for street protests and gather signatures for a petition, she says. Also through Facebook, software designers got in touch with the group to propose a mobile app that now helps residents track air conditions, and a local public relations firm offered to donate a billboard campaign.

When local officials appeared to back down over plans for the coal ban, “people started writing very negative things on their pages,” and they soon reversed course, says Dworakowska. Crucially, she added, journalists also took note of the social media blitz, and press and television coverage of the air pollution issue jumped dramatically, continuing for the first time last year into spring, when Krakow’s air quality improves.

Simon Birkett

Simon Birkett, a campaigner for cleaner air in London. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

In London, Birkett, an investment banker-turned-campaigner who runs Clean Air in London from his home, posts incessantly on Twitter and Facebook. He took early retirement from HSBC in 2009, aged 50, to devote himself to the campaign full time, and full time it is – his phone rings constantly, his workdays sometimes stretch until 3am, and he sends e-mail barrages even while on holiday. Birkett occasionally employs extra help but mostly runs the effort on his own from his home in Knightsbridge, with a businessman’s focus and discipline.

He funds much of it too, lending Clean Air in London £30,000 of his own money, on top of his thousands of unpaid hours.


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