Urban pollution and health: how to network between companies, citizens and NGOs

Over the last few decades, the international scientific community has pointed to climate change and global warming as the direct consequence of atmospheric pollution of the globe, and today the disastrous consequences of the extraordinary weather events, experienced also in Italy in recent months, are evident to all.  

The mass media in all countries, for their part, provide comprehensive information on these delicate issues on a daily basis, also in an attempt to counter the many convinced naysayers and deniers who vehemently reject the correlation between the serious natural disaster and the actions of mankind: from the reckless exploitation of natural resources to the inadequate countermeasures adopted to accompany industrial development in the last century. 

In order to effectively counter the alteration of environmental balances, immediate action would be required involving society as a whole and the economic and political spheres of the international community.  

Pollution in Italy

Air pollution is a problem that affects the entire planet: according to data from the European Environment Agency in Europe, it caused around 440,000 premature deaths in 2019 alone, and our country tops this list with around 63,700 deaths in the same time period.

Under observation is the poor air quality that characterises, above all, the most densely populated urban areas, where one of the most damaging elements for health is atmospheric particulate matter, the set of dust particles, mainly deriving from anthropogenic activities, that remain in suspension in the air and that, due to their size and their ability to carry other contaminants, are capable of causing serious damage to health and even lead to death. 

Industries, vehicular traffic, intensive livestock farms, heating plants and power stations are just some of the sources that alter air quality with their emissions. To explore this issue in more detail, we spoke with Mattia Lolli, a member of Legambiente’s National Secretariat and and co-author of the Rome Business School Research Centre’s Report study: ‘Environmental sustainability and sustainable development. What challenges for the urban ecosystem of the future?” he told us:

2021 was an important year in terms of the global air pollution scenario. On 22 September, the new WHO global air quality guidelines (AQGs) were published by the World Health Organisation, which revised downwards the previously recommended limit values and introduced new metrics for calculating all pollutants, with particular reference to PM2.5 – made up of silicon, aluminium, iron and titanium oxides, sea salts and biological agents – and NO2, which includes substances from combustion processes.   

In Legambiente’s ‘Mal’aria’ research and the Rome Business School’s study on the pollution situation in Italy, the data published refer to 233 Arpa air monitoring stations in 104 main cities. 

The surveys, as a whole, show overruns in all values, for legal limits, mainly in northern cities.  The focus is on PM10 and PM2.5, the finest part of particulate matter and the one that causes the greatest health concerns: precisely for having exceeded the limit value for concentrations of polluting particles, continuously from 2008 to 2017, Italy has been subjected to an infringement procedure by the European Court of Justice, with the ruling of 10 November 2020. An important signal and hopefully also a warning for our country, which still has a long way to go compared to other European nations.”

Critical issues in Italian cities 

Based on data provided by European Union countries, for many cities, air pollution is still a serious unresolved problem. In fact, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA) report, only 3% of the 344 urban centres analysed have good air quality

Italy chronically suffers from air pollution problems and no real policies have ever been put in place to combat the phenomenon. The progress that has been made in the last 15/20 years is often due to technology in the sense of improving emissions – from cars, domestic and industrial heating – but without a balance in supporting policies. 

For example, on the car front, we went from Euro 0 in the 1990s to Euro 6 in the 2000s with the consequence that private mobility became prevalent in many areas of Italy also due to insufficient local public transport.  What was the expected technological improvement was not sufficient to reduce emissions, because integrated interventions on sustainable mobility were not planned.  A missed opportunity in the face of the almost 3 billion euro earmarked for stimulating car replacement. And all this reverberates in the alarming data in the Italian agglomerations of Florence, Rome, Naples, Catania and the Po Valley, where emissions from cars and domestic heating are also mixed with emissions from agriculture and industry. 

In the Mal’aria research we put forward a series of proposals, also aimed at directing more investments precisely in public mobility, especially electric mobility, where Italy is lagging far behind. We also focus on sharing mobility, pedestrianisation, and the closure of some areas to traffic, good practices in which, for example, a city like Milan has long stood out. European cities, on the contrary, have already been adopting integrated policies related to mobility, agriculture, industry, decentralisation and the reduction of stocking densities, where possible, for a decade now.

The role of companies

The industrial world still burdens the environment too much through a series of activities that impact on air, soil, water, noise and other environmental areas. In recent years, the debate involving environmentalists, economists, institutional and political leaders has focused on reducing environmental impact by combining sustainability in production processes with social commitment.

 “Companies can make a difference by adopting integrated internal policies starting with energy – which is becoming central in many respects – and ending with sustainable mobility. Many industrial giants, for example, have invested in the figure of the mobility manager to develop car sharing policies and encourage the use of public transport. These are fundamental signs, still isolated cases to tell the truth, but the path has begun.  We are also witnessing greater collaboration between the world of profit and that of the Third Sector, linked above all to the environment, for joint volunteer and awareness-raising projects, but also research and innovation. It is, however, important to invest more and more in energy saving, building efficiency and energy production through renewable sources. A great opportunity is represented by energy communities: we are waiting for the implementing decrees, which we hope will arrive soon, that will allow associations, citizens, but also public bodies – for example schools – to become self-producers of energy and to share it by building ‘networks’.

On the issue of high energy bills, we, as Legambiente, believe that we are not going in the right direction: outdated recipes are proposed such as extracting more gas, building new gasifiers and re-proposing nuclear recipes. We believe that renewables, whose approval process is still very slow and complex, should be disgorged.”

The Role of Citizens

Environmental promotion and information enables citizens to become increasingly aware of the importance of their own guiding role in decision-making processes regarding the protection of the planet. However, in outlining the characteristics and ways of feeling environmental, starting with individual action, an important distinction is drawn between those who implement good practices and those who, on the contrary, have not yet understood that health and wellness are closely linked to the state of the environment.  

Before talking about environmental awareness or environmentalism, I would talk about civic sense, in which Italians are somewhat lacking compared to our European cousins. If we all adopted good daily practices, our lives would automatically improve. 

Also because one thing must be said: the time horizon of measures and policies adopted to produce tangible results is 10 years. Let’s not look for alibis for the use of public transport, for example: let’s take the buses, metros and trams and start reducing our emissions. In Milan, for example, successive mayors in three terms of office have consolidated the culture of sustainable mobility that makes the Lombard capital the most international Italian city in terms of public transport network and services. It must be explained to citizens and political decision-makers that improving air quality does not only mean finding solutions to environmental issues, but solving social and especially health issues. It is estimated that every year in Italy the National Health System incurs between EUR 47 and 142 billion in costs associated with premature deaths and respiratory diseases. An enormous figure, comparable to a financial manoeuvre.”

Corporate Social Responsibility

In the knowledge economy, the culture of environmental responsibility and sustainability has embraced a plurality of economic sectors and a multiplicity of stakeholders. From this point of view, the large industrial giants, in the wake of environmental movements, have created a new corporate culture focused on responsibility, replacing the exclusively profit-oriented corporate vision. In our country, this transitional phase is struggling to take off because the Italian economic fabric is made up of small and medium-sized enterprises, realities that are still partly distant from these issues, despite the positive return on image that strengthens the reputation in the reference market. 

In recent years we have witnessed an important growth in the culture of Corporate Social Responsibility.  This policy certainly generates a positive impact, and companies are multiplying their collaborations with the voluntary world, creating important awareness campaigns. For example, Legambiente has re-established a very strong collaboration with companies involved in research in the field of bioplastics and alternative materials. This synergy has led to important regulatory changes such as the banning of cotton buds, microplastics in cosmetics, and plastic bags in supermarkets. In 2022 on the subject of renewables, we contributed to the unblocking of authorisations for wind farms and after 14 years of a troubled process an offshore plant was built in Taranto. We are very pleased that new production and social paradigms are also coming to life in Italy”.

The role of NGOs

The role of NGOs is crucial in retaining target audiences and raising awareness among those who are distant or deaf to environmentalist calls. The purpose of NGOs is to promote concrete actions by citizens to stimulate institutions towards legislation that generates a real change of pace.  

I am thinking, for example, of schools and universities that have subverted the cultural paradigm in recent years. We have to thank the movements born from the commitment of the new generations from Greta Thumberg to Fridays for future.  We as Legambiente invest a lot in the non-formal education of young people, because environmental issues are unfortunately still not fully included in curricular teaching.  At this time, I believe that the role of NGOs and the Third Sector must be to make people understand how the challenges of the future are all closely linked. And in this respect, the Covid 19 pandemic has amply demonstrated this. 

Often, when talking about sustainability, the most common image is that of the famous triangle with environmental, economic and social aspects at the apexes. In recent years, a strong fissure has been created between institutions, citizens and companies. If we wanted to use a metaphor, the role of the world of associations is a bit like that of electricians: to create a virtuous ‘short circuit’ that encourages an active dialogue between institutions, citizens and businesses for that cultural change in environmental issues that is so much desired“.


Graduated in Political Science and International Relations. Aquilan, active in the 3e32 committee set up after the 2009 earthquake. He joined Legambiente in 2011 in the voluntary sector and is involved in international volunteer projects. In 2013 he moved to the campaigns sector where he began to follow the main Legambiente mobilisation and awareness campaigns on the climate crisis and ecological transition. He is elected president of the volunteer network International Alliance of European Voluntary Service Organisations from 2015 to 2019. In 2020 he becomes national volunteering manager and joins the national secretariat of Legambiente.

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