Wintertime in Milan sees the city’s fashion-conscious reach for cashmere scarves and tailored furs to keep out the biting cold. But many residents are now making room in their wardrobes for another, less desirable, accessory: the surgical mask.
In recent weeks a dingy grey haze has hung over the Po River Valley, the heavily urbanised region that includes Milan and Turin and represents an important chunk of Italy’s industrial output. Long regarded as one of Europe’s pollution hotspots, smog from car and factory emissions often gets trapped at the base of the Alps by high atmospheric pressure and at times can grow thick enough to be seen from space.
So far, efforts by politicians at municipal and regional levels to tackle the area’s chronic smog have proven ineffective. Letizia Moratti, Milan’s mayor, made some progress in 2007 when she experimented with a congestion charge to limit car traffic in the central area of the city. But while the “pollution charge” has been made permanent, newer vehicles with cleaner burning engines are exempt – in 2009, 77 million cars entered the city, two million more than before the ban was put in place.
This winter Moratti has resorted to drastic measures, including banning traffic on Sundays. Since Italy has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the world, levels of particulate matter (PM10) – tiny airborne particles caused by the burning of fossil fuels like petrol in motor vehicles – stayed above limits considered safe by the European Union. To make matters worse, cities are permitted to have excessive PM10 levels just 35 days a year, a quota Milan has repeatedly violated, which results in hefty fines from Brussels.
All this comes as Milan prepares to host in 2015 a World Expo based around the theme of sustainability – Moratti actually managed to persuade Al Gore to back the Lombard capital’s bid when time came for voting. While a bike-sharing scheme is now in place and ground has been broken on new metro lines, environmentalists say these measures aren’t enough. “In Italy, we see half-measures, nothing sustained, when it comes to green issues,” says Andrea Poggio, deputy director of Legambiente, an Italian environmental organisation. “Milan has a few dozen cycle lanes, whereas Hamburg, a city of similar size, has 1,700km.”
Poggio’s group has tried to raise awareness, to be met with tepid enthusiasm by the Milanese. He recently took part in a shame campaign, touring Milan’s municipal offices with a TV crew to show thermostats set at 24 Celsius – even though a citywide decree had called for 19 degrees. “One degree less saves 7-8 per cent in energy consumption and pollution. But then you hear from a city councillor that he’s cold. Can’t they put on a sweater?”