The World Health Organization’s Director of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health Dr Maria Neira presented city mayors with a prescription: measure your level of ambition on the number of lives you can save and the number of asthma cases that you can reduce— and WHO will help them do it.
Dr Neira was speaking at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen last Friday, at which leading subnational leaders, businesses and citizens from around the world have gathered to rally around climate action and share examples and experiences of successful action and challenges.
“My prescription to you is measure your level of ambition on the number of lives that you can save, the number of asthma cases that you can reduce— we can do that for you,” she said.
“Any action you take to improve sustainable transport; to remove from Beijing all the industrial processes (for example); all the measures you are putting in place, you are generating health benefits that can be quantified.
“We can do that as WHO, we can sell it back to you, and you can tell your citizens: ‘look how I am protecting your health’,” Dr Neira continued.
Her call came after the announcement earlier that day that the mayors of 35 cities had pledged to deliver clean air for the more than 140 million people living in their cities, a commitment the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen considered, “the most important declaration for this summit” because of its multifaceted potential benefits.
“If we do this in the right way, everyone wins; with sustainable solutions that benefit the climate, the environment and public health,” Lord Mayor Jensen said, of the C40 Clean Air Cities Declaration.
More precisely, according to C40’s press release, if the 35 signatories reduce the annual average of fine particle pollutant (PM2.5) levels to WHO guidelines (10µg/m3), they could avoid 40,000 premature deaths each year.
The Declaration’s mayors recognized that breathing clean air was a human right and committed to working together to form “an unparalleled global coalition for clean air”, pledging to set ambitious air pollution reduction targets, implement substantive clean air policies by 2025, and publicly reporting on their progress to a “race to the top” in the world’s big cities.
They were among the many mayors at the summit who described legacies, legislation and initiatives in their cities geared towards providing their constituents with safe, healthy air by putting human wellbeing at the centre of decision-making.
“We shut down that coal plant in Los Angeles, we know that we’re going to save 1,650 premature deaths, 660 hospitalizations from lung and heart disease, and save $16 billion in health costs,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and incoming chair of C40 Cities, at the announcement.
“So anybody who says this is too expensive to do it, is too expensive not to do,” he added.
It’s an approach the WHO’s Dr Neira hopes that more governments will take to shore up public support for and add momentum to the “race to the top” of clean air and climate action.
According to the WHO, nine out of 10 citizens around the world breathe unhealthy air, 7 million people die premature each year due to air pollution, and the overall toll this pollution takes on human health is staggering.
The World Bank estimates that air pollution costs the global economy over US$5 trillion in welfare costs and $225 billion in lost income, while the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts that the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution alone would soar to US$18-25 trillion by 2060 if nothing is done about the problem.
The human activities that generate the emissions that drive global warming also produce health-harmful air pollutants, a relationship that has seen the health impacts of both climate change and air quality rise in discussions on deepening ambition.
Nonetheless, tried-and-tested solutions exist to tackle air pollution while simultaneously boosting the response to climate change, improving citizens’ quality of life and health and the liveability of cities.
Dr Neira urged governments to commit to getting their air quality to safe, healthy levels as soon as possible to save lives and improve quality of life.
Today’s Declaration complements commitments taken at the Climate Action Summit 2019 last month, in which 40 national governments and over 70 cities pledged to get air quality down to safe levels through the Clean Air Initiative, including by quantifying the health benefits of policies and reporting on their action; as well as a commitment announced by over 10,000 cities of the Global Covenant of Mayors focused on achieving air quality that is safe for citizens and to aligning climate change and air pollution policies by 2030. Governments can still add their commitment to the Clean Air Initiative. Clean Air Commitments gathered thus far will be reviewed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Chile (COP25) this December.
Read the C40 press release on the declaration: 35 CITIES UNITE TO CLEAN THE AIR THEIR CITIZENS BREATHE, PROTECTING THE HEALTH OF MILLIONS