Air pollution around the world fell during nationwide “lockdowns” prompted by COVID-19, in many cities dramatically— and people noticed. As governments begin to put in place stimulus packages to kickstart their economies, there is growing public demand for investments in measures to reduce air pollution.
At least two-thirds of citizens in Bulgaria, Great Britain, India, Nigeria and Poland support stricter laws and enforcement to tackle air pollution following the COVID-19 crisis, a new YouGov poll conducted on behalf of the Clean Air Fund has found.
In Nigeria and India, more than 90 per cent of those surveyed wanted to see air quality improved in their area.
The poll also highlights that at least 71 per cent of people surveyed are concerned about air pollution as a public health issue.
The findings are published in the Clean Air Fund’s new briefing, “Breathing Space”.
“There is clear public demand for governments around the world to act on clean air – and no excuse not to. As lockdowns are eased and economies restarted, people are clear that they do not want a return to toxic air. That would simply replace one health crisis with another,” said Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund, Jane Burston.
The poll comes on the heels of a steady stream of calls for a green, health-conscious recovery, among them those from millions of healthcare professionals, multinational companies, prominent economists, several European Union countries, and global investor groups.
“Governments will never have a better chance to address these issues. They can structure bailouts to wean the sectors they save off fossil fuels. They can prioritise green jobs, renewable energy and clean technology. These measures would pay for themselves many times over,” wrote former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in an op-ed that made reference to the poll.
“There are also specific steps they can take on clean air. Leaders of some of the world’s biggest cities, including London and Milan, are already repurposing city centres to use cleaner energy and technology. They are encouraging us to get out of our cars, to make more journeys on foot, by bike or — in the long term — via public transport, by investing in infrastructure that makes this possible. These ideas need to be expanded and repeated elsewhere, with backing from national governments,” he continued.
Breathing Space highlights the close connections between COVID-19 and air pollution, and calls for governments to tackle them together in recovery plans.
At a recent WHO press conference, WHO Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan said that while it was difficult to make associations between the incidence and severity of COVID-19 and exposure to air pollution, there was no question that poor air quality was associated with chronic lung disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders.
“And we do know that people with underlying chronic conditions of the respiratory system and heart and cardiovascular system have higher mortality rates, so it’s logical to assume that if someone already has damaged lungs from severe outdoor or indoor air pollution, they will be more affected by this virus, especially if they become clinically unwell,” he continued.
At the same time, air quality has improved near instantly as a result of decisive actions to protect public health through lockdowns.
The briefing urges governments to use the unprecedented funds now being committed to recovery packages to lock in some of these benefits.
Putting a joined-up strategy to tackle air pollution at the heart of the recovery would improve health, build resilience to future diseases, boost productivity, reduce health costs and help tackle climate change.
“We cannot get out of this crisis with the same levels of pollution. It has to be a green recovery. If we go back to the former economic development, that will be creating a massive health problem and a massive economic problem at the same time. We need to avoid the temptation, in the name of the recovery of the economy, to go back to intensive use of fossil fuels or intensive use of cars,” said WHO’s Director of the Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira.
The costs of failing to improve air quality are considerable. The World Bank has calculated that air pollution costs the global economy $225 billion each year in lost labour income. Air pollution cost $21 billion in global health expenditure in 2015. If welfare losses are included, the costs run into many trillions of dollars.
Air pollution leads to seven million premature deaths caused by air pollution every year, largely linked to strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.
“Action to improve air quality is uniquely possible and popular right now. It would also help mitigate climate change, which has many of the same causes and also hits the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Solutions already exist but they are not being scaled, copied or adapted with sufficient speed or focus,” Ms. Burston said. “Governments must harness this widespread public support for actions to clean our air, and use post-COVID recovery packages to protect our health and environment.”
The Clean Air Fund is calling on leaders putting together recovery stimulus packages to:
- Develop and resource joint national health and environment strategies, with a specific focus on tackling air pollution.
- Make reducing air pollution a key element of economic stimulus packages.
- Support the repurposing of city streets for walking and cycling.
- Strengthen and enforce regulations to retain and build on the improvements in air quality experienced during the pandemic.
- Work with other governments to tackle transboundary pollution.
“We are calling on governments to make sure that pollution levels do not return to previous levels, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up healthily in a liveable and sustainable climate. It may be the only chance we have for anything positive to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, and to let this opportunity slip by would be unforgivable,” President International Council of Nurses, Annette Kennedy said in a press release from healthcare groups urging G20 countries to put public health at the forefront of COVID-19 recovery.
Read the briefing here: Breathing Space
Banner photo: Ville de Paris