With nine out of ten people throughout the world breathing polluted air daily, poor air quality is now the norm. Few are spared exposure to what is now recognized as the world’s greatest environmental health risk. The air we breathe is claiming millions of lives each year, and our children have been bequeathed a world in which they are growing up inhaling a toxic cocktail of harmful pollutants that will have long-term health, social and economic ramifications for all societies.
The global public health crisis we now face was grimly encapsulated in an op-ed in the Washington Post in February this year by Dr Arvind Kumar, a surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, India, who said it was rare to see a normal pink lung in adults today given the “wretchedly polluted air”. “Newborns in many of our cities become ‘smokers’ from their very first breath.”
Given the immense scope and ubiquity of the problem and its growing recognition globally, air pollution is the focus of this year’s World Environment Day. Indeed, the World Health Organization named air pollution and climate change as among the top ten health threats in 2019. The link between the two is clear. The main sources of CO2 emissions – the burning of fossil fuels – are not only drivers of climate change, they are also leading sources of air pollutants. Our continued dependence on fossil fuels is generating more greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to global warming, as well as to a continued decline in air quality. Short-lived climate pollutants – black carbon, ozone, methane and hydrofluorocarbons – which also have harmful effects for people, are significant contributors to climate change, responsible for up to 45 percent of current global warming.
Declining air quality and rising emissions have resulted in humanity facing an imminent existential threat. Unless we reduce emissions across all sectors, temperatures will further rise, risking the collapse of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and agricultural food production worldwide, and endangering our ability to sustain life on this planet. Inaction with regards to air pollution will continue to compromise human health, and noncommunicable diseases, particularly those affecting the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, will continue to proliferate, further increasing mortality and morbidity rates. We stand at a critical juncture in our collective history, and the actions we take now will determine the future for generations to come. Our survival is dependent on the urgency with which we act to avert impending calamity.
We are still in a position to avoid worst-case scenarios and to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as stipulated in the Paris Agreement and limit air pollution levels to within World Health Organization guidelines. But in order to do this, we must change the way we meet our future fuel and energy needs, transform our industrial practices, and reorient our modes of transport. A large-scale societal realignment is required: One that supports zero-carbon development and that is based on forward-thinking policies. This will sow the seeds of prosperity for future generations, bringing with it better health outcomes, more jobs, and more equitable access to sustainable energy and transportation.
On World Environment Day, we, Clean Air Asia and the Clean Air Institute, call on all governments to act rapidly to alter the course we are presently on. We have the technology, the knowledge and the solutions to make the requisite changes. What we need now is consensus, and the political will and commitment to make those changes. Inaction places even more lives at risk and threatens to reverse any gains that have been made. The cost of inaction is far greater in the long term – economically, environmentally, socially and health-wise – than the cost of taking action now.
Cities and countries have proven that when there is political commitment, tackling emissions, mitigating climate change, and protecting public health is possible. The transition to clean energy, the implementation of electric and soot-free transport systems, the development of integrated air quality and climate action plans, and the development of collaborative frameworks among the health and environmental sectors are actions that demonstrate that a better future is at hand. International campaigns such as BreatheLife are experiencing an increase in the number of cities making public commitments to reduce air pollution.
While there remain many challenges ahead, the momentum is building and positive steps forward are being taken in countries and cities that are proving successful. It is these successes that will serve as both inspiration and guidance in the coming years. We all have a role to play in improving air quality, and collaboration among all stakeholders will be essential. Ultimately, success will come with unity and the recognition that our strength lies in our shared vision, and our future in our shared responsibility. Clean Air Asia and the Clean Air Institute have supported communities, cities and governments in the Asia/Pacific and Latin America regions and are eager to continue partnering with them and sharing technical expertise to have an increased impact.
Clean air for all is achievable. But we must act now.