By Robin Gomes
In a message for Monday’s observance of the first International Day of Clean Air, on the theme, “Clean Air for All”, the UN chief notes that 9 out of every 10 people around the world breathe unclean air. He calls on all to join hands in building a better future with clean air for all.
Price of pollution
“Air pollution contributes to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases,” notes UN Secretary-General António Guterres, urging for greater efforts to address the problem of air pollution.
Citing UN figures, he points out that air pollution “causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries,” threatening “the economy, food security and the environment”.
Post Covid-19 situation
“As we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, the world needs to pay far greater attention to air pollution, which also increases the risks associated with COVID-19,” he urges.
This year, while the lockdowns associated with the global pandemic led to dramatic falls in emissions – providing a glimpse of cleaner air in many cities – emissions are already rising again, in some places surpassing pre-COVID levels.
Guterres calls for “dramatic and systemic change”, stressing, “reinforced environmental standards, policies and laws that prevent emissions of air pollutants are needed more than ever.”
Climate action for clean air
The UN Secretary-General notes that addressing climate change can help fight air pollution.
“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees will help reduce air pollution, death and disease,” he says and calls on countries to end subsidies for fossil fuels as well as use post-COVID recovery packages to support the transition to healthy and sustainable jobs.
“I call on governments still providing finance for fossil fuel-related projects in developing countries to shift that support towards clean energy and sustainable transport.”
“At the international level,” he adds, “countries need to cooperate to help each other transition to clean technologies.”
In a separate message, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), also voices similar concerns over the huge environmental threat of air pollution to human health.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the “skies may have looked clearer and bluer than before as air pollution drops, but,” she points out, “economic lockdowns are not the way to build a healthier world.
The poor bear the brunt
Air pollution, Andersen points out, has a disproportionate impact on the poor, with mounting economic costs, such as through “healthcare bills, lost productivity, reduced crop yields or the eroded competitiveness of cities”.
While establishing the International Day of Clean Air, the General Assembly pointed out air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons. It acknowledged that improving air quality enhances climate change mitigation and vice versa.
The September 7 International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UNEP chief says, was established to teach individuals, communities, businesses and government that clean air is fundamental for our future.
The COVID-19 lockdowns have proved that a cleaner sky is possible. With solutions and technology in hand, Andersen says, humanity needs to act together quickly to beat air pollution and protect human health.