ROME — This has been a bad year for Italians in large cities who like to breathe. Milan has been under a blanket of thick yellow smog, topping the international bad air quality level, known as particulate matter 10 or PM10, more than 97 times in 2015. Rome has exceeded the limit 56 times. Naples and Turin have also surpassed the limit far more than the 35 times allowed under international regulations for urban centers.
The reason? Blatant disrespect for the rules that govern air quality, and a lack of strategy by the government.
The air pollution is not just bothersome, it is also becoming deadly. More than 30,000 people die each year in Italy because of health complications tied to bad air quality, according to a recent study by the Department of Epidemiology of the Lazio Region Health Service. “In terms of life expectancy this means that, on average, air pollution shortens the life of every Italian citizen by 10 months,” according to the study. “Respecting laws would save 11,000 lives every year.”
Now, in what feels a lot like a panic response, cities are banning everything from Vespas to pizza ovens to try to bring the air quality under control. In Milan, all private non-electric vehicles are banned from the city streets from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for three days, starting Monday; in Rome, only those with license plates ending in even numbers can be used on Monday and those with uneven numbers can circulate Tuesday for nine hours of the day. In San Vitaliano, near Naples, authorities have banned the use of wood-burning pizza ovens for three months while pollution filters are installed.
The filthy air issue has also become political. Government ministers for the environment, transportation, and tourism will meet in an emergency summit on Wednesday to try to assess what to do next.
Opposition leaders have accused the ruling government under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of complacency on climate change.
“This is like the days of the great wars. The Italian cities are not bombed by foreign powers, but living under siege by silent enemies silent,” Beppe Grillo, leader of the opposition Five Star Movement, wrote on his blog. “Smog is making us more and more similar to Beijing. The prime minister and ministers are a disgrace to the country. We are paying the price of their arrogance with our blood. “
Bad air is nothing new in Italy, but 2015 has been particularity bad because of above-average temperatures and lack of rain, especially in Milan, where it has not rained in more than 50 days.
Italy’s environmental protection agency known as ARPA (Azienda Regionale per la Protezione dell’Ambiente) has called 2015 a “black year” for environmental standards in Italy. The agency is warning that unless drastic lifestyle changes are made by Italians and city authorities, the damage to the environment could be irreversible.
Especially worrying, but not all that surprising in this country, is the fact that rather than complying with regulations, some Italians are finding creative ways around them.
In Rome, a number of five-and-dime shops have started selling kits to temporarily convert license plate numbers to beat the alternative license plate regulations so drivers can avoid the $250 fine that comes with driving when they shouldn’t.
There is a widespread and justified lack of confidence in the public transportation system, which is dismal at best in the capital. On Christmas Day, for example, the subway system mysteriously stopped running at 1:30 p.m. after a number of workers and substitute drivers called in sick, leaving those celebrating the holiday stranded.
“How can you run a city like that?” asks Giuseppe, a coffee bar worker who showed The Daily Beast how he replaced his odd-numbered plate with an even-numbered plate he bought from a thrift shop so he could get to work. “If I relied on the buses, I would be late every day—if I made it at all.”
Rome’s public transportation company, ATAC, says it is working to improve services, but admits that unless the company is privatized, there is little they can do to combat budget cuts and drivers’ strikes that keep people using their own vehicles.
Many environmentalists warn that the car ban doesn’t work anyway, and is like putting a Band-Aid on a tumor. In Rome, the alternative license plate method still means that 1.3 million cars can circulate every day. In Milan, the restraint on private cars means that there are nearly twice as many taxis on the streets.
“The smog emergency that is occurring in many major Italian cities can last much longer,” said Gian Luca Galletti, Italy’s environmental minister. “And it can recur in the future with increasing frequency, as we’ve seen from the effects that climate change is causing in the world. That’s why our response must be coordinated and ‘systematic,’ not random.”
Or, simply, too little, too late.