Addressing air pollution in Athens

The UN Climate Summit 2019 saw governments and private sector make bold commitments to address climate change. Greece, among other EU countries committed to phasing out coal as part of their national efforts to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. Cities are a huge source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

The city of Athens is at risk of losing its ancient Greek monuments, including The Acropolis, one of the most-visited archaeological sites in the world because of pollution in Athens. Air pollution has been contributing to health issues such as asthma, chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, stroke and heart disease, along with the deterioration of the monuments. Poor air quality in Athens is also shortening life expectancy of Greeks by two years. Many sources of air pollution are also heavy emitters of CO2 and contribute to a vicious cycle that threatens individual health and climate. Reducing air pollution in cities improves the quality of life for everyone in the near and long term. So, what role do local governments play to save Athens, the citizens’ health and preserve its rich cultural heritage? Well, Marnie McGregor, a Pioneer based in Athens is working on a solution.

Marnie’s experience in local policy-making started while she served as the Director of Intergovernmental relations in Vancouver, a position she held for over 8 years before moving to Athens. While here, she led her team to UN Climate COP 21 in Paris that saw UN member states commit to the historic Paris Agreement. Her transcontinental move led her to Athens where she began working with the local municipal government.

“I learnt about Pioneers through a launch event that I was attending in Athens. I was impressed by Climate-KIC’s mandate, which focuses on innovative solutions for low carbon economy. My goal coming in was to immerse myself in a global context, and Pioneers exceeded my expectations in actualizing this objective.” She says.

During a workshop on systems innovation hosted by Climate-KIC, the Greece Pioneers took part in the online e-learning to review concepts of system innovation and models on reducing air pollution in Athens and also develop their project. The group conducted analysis of current carbon emissions and the source of these emissions on urban transport and they found that the public transport sector, and buses are responsible for more than half of all emissions due to the aging fleet. Through their research and analysis, they discovered that the city of Athens also lacked non-profit groups that brought together stakeholders and community members to advocate for a safer, cleaner and sustainable public transport. A non-profit called Diminishing Air Pollution with Innovative Systems (DAISY) was born.

As the city had a gap of involving various stakeholders, Pioneers in Greece came up to form a coalition that would bring different stakeholders together. DAISY combat’s air pollution by championing sustainable transportation options, including public transit (metro, buses and trams), walking, cycling and scooters in cities. The organisation also advocates for local, regional and national policies and regulations to support sustainable transportation options, viable alternatives to private cars and taxis, and including low-income neighborhoods in the sustainable transportation coverage.

Through her placement, Marnie works on replicating an innovation lab in Athens, similar to a model that exists in Vancouver. The innovation lab is a formal partnership between the municipality and the universities. Here, undergraduate students’ partner with municipal government staff and departments to implement policy objectives. The program focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals. The innovation lab enables students to design activities and innovative products that address low carbon economy in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. The students not only get credit for these programmes, but also, they take real world complex issues and turn them to tangible products which either end up becoming startups or launched businesses.

Settling in a new culture comes with its complexities and challenges, and for Marnie, the cultural shift has been a learning curve. “As a North American immersing myself in Greek culture, I have had to be more culturally sensitive to the traditions and norms of the people and country at large,” she said. Marnie is learning Greek, and she hopes to continue developing her language skills. She is grateful for Climate-KIC for giving her the exposure and experiences that she wouldn’t have otherwise been part of.

The networks, long-term vision and interactions with other cohorts across Europe are fascinating and what I hoped for when joining the program. Climate-KIC makes me more optimistic about the future because of the great minds from many backgrounds who commit to specific goals as it relates to Climate Change.