One of the most terrifying things about the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic was the realization that the air we breathe could also make us sick.
And yet, for millions of people around the world, breathing potentially deadly air is a daily reality because of noxious pollution caused by everything from factories, to cars, to cooking fires.
As governments begin the difficult process of reviving economies struck down by the pandemic, a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) finds states must put policies to tackle air pollution front-and-centre if they’re to help deliver the green recovery the planet so desperately needs.
The report – Actions on Air Quality: A global summary of policies and programmes to reduce air pollution – comes as the world marks the second International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on 7 September. It is based on recent survey data from 195 states and is complemented by regional assessments.
Among 124 countries with air quality standards, only 57 continuously monitor air quality, the report found, while 104 countries have no monitoring infrastructure in place. This reflects existing data gaps and capacity issues that hinder global action on air quality.
In addition to the report, UNEP also launched an interactive air pollution dashboard, which displays the global state of air pollution, major sources, the impact on human health and national efforts to tackle this critical issue.
Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to public health globally and accounts for an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.
While UNEP’s new report found progress in all major polluting sectors over the past five years, it noted there were still large gaps in implementation, financing, capacity, and monitoring of air quality. Because of these barriers, air pollution levels remain unchanged.
“There is no question that policy is crucial and this report points out the many successful actions that are being increasingly taken by countries,” said Gary Kleiman, lead consultant on the report. “However, guidance is also needed. Where there are capacity challenges in countries that have not undertaken air quality management before, it is critical that we provide the knowledge, tools and resources in a way that is accessible and ready for uptake by those who want to take action.”
Developed countries have greatly improved their air quality in recent years but many developing countries, still reliant on wood and other solid fuels for cooking and heating, lag behind. The result is that many of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized people also suffer from the worst air quality.
A global killer
As well as causing around 7 million premature deaths every year, major air pollutants affect the climate. Most, like greenhouse gases, come from the combustion of fossil fuels. Air pollution also damages ecosystems, reduces crop yields and harms the health of forests.
Barring a major reversal, premature deaths resulting from ambient air pollution are poised to increase by more than 50 per cent by 2050.
“As awareness is raised of the devastating impact of poor air quality on human health, we are seeing that governments are increasingly showing political will to take action,” Kleiman said. “However, it is critical that actions be based on science so that the strength of the necessary actions are at a level consistent with the need.”
Kleiman said one of the key messages from the report was that reducing air pollution would also help mitigate climate change, increase agricultural productivity, improve energy security and drive economic growth.
“As countries identify the best way to make investments that help (them) recover from the pandemic, they should be aligning these investments with sustainable development.” Limiting air pollution, he said, “should be part of every green post-pandemic plan.”
Every year, on 7 September, the world celebrates the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. The day aims to raise awareness and facilitate actions to improve air quality. It is a global call to find new ways of doing things, to reduce the amount of air pollution we cause, and ensure that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their right to breathe clean air. The theme of the second annual International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is “Healthy Air, Healthy Planet.”