Network Updates / New York City, United States of America / 2019-06-20

National Academies of Sciences and Medicine issue urgent call to action on harmful air pollution:

New international initiative stresses need for global action on air pollution as health impacts remain high

New York City, United States of America
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Press Release from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition

Five National Academies of Sciences and Medicine from South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the United States of America have joined forces to issue an urgent call to action on harmful air pollution. They are calling for a new global compact to improve collaboration on the growing problem, and for governments, businesses and citizens to reduce air pollution in all countries.

The academies launched their call with the publication of a science-policy statement, which was handed over in a ceremony at United Nations headquarters in New York, to senior UN representatives and high-level diplomats from South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the United States of America.

According to the statement private and public investments are insufficient and do not match the scale of the problem. Air pollution is preventable. With sufficient action suffering and deaths from dirty air can be avoided. Clean air is as vital to life on earth as clean water. Air pollution control and reduction must now be a priority for all.

The five National Academies called for immediate action from all levels of society. This includes a request for emissions controls in all countries and proper monitoring of key pollutants – especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is one of the smallest particulates in the air we breathe and can enter and impact all organs of the body.

The academies said a global compact would:

“Ensure sustained engagement at the highest level and make air pollution control and reduction a priority for all. It would also encourage policymakers and other key partners, including the private sector, to integrate emission control and reduction into national and local planning, development processes, and business and finance strategies. For such a process to be successful, there would need to be both political leadership and partnerships including working together with existing multinational structures.”

The statement makes a direct link to short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon.

Methane, it says, contributes to the formation of ground-level-ozone, and levels of ground-level ozone increase with rising temperatures and rising temperatures increase the frequency of wildfires, which in turn further elevate levels of particulate air pollution. While black carbon from combustion, impacts health, regional temperatures, precipitation, and extreme weather. The Arctic and glaciated regions such as the Himalayas are particularly vulnerable to melting from deposited black carbon which heats the surface.

The academies said air pollution control and climate change mitigation were closely linked because they share common sources and, to a large extent, solutions, and because most air pollutants also impact the climate.

Increased funding to tackle the problem and substantial investment in measures to reduce air pollution can therefore help reduce climate change and contribute to the goal of limiting average global warming to 1.5˚C.

With this statement, the academies provide further scientific input for the UN Secretary General’s global climate action summit in September this year. A coalition of countries led by Spain and Peru, the UN Secretary General, and the World Health Organization is now inviting countries, regions and cities to “commit to achieving air quality that is safe for their populations, and to align their climate change and air pollution policies, by 2030”, in advance of the climate summit. The commitments will be tracked through the “BreatheLife Action Platform”.

Executive Officer Himla Soodyall from the Academy of Science of South Africa says: “The health impacts of air pollution are enormous, it can harm health across the entire lifespan, causing disease, disability, and death. It is time to move the issue much higher up in the policy agenda. Strengthening synergies with other policy areas, including sustainable development, climate change and food security is important.”

President Marcia McNutt of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences says: “More people will suffer every year if we don’t deal with air pollution. The good thing is: Air pollution can be cost-effectively controlled. We need to act much more decisively. We need more public and private investments in tackling air pollution that do match the scale of the problem.”

Foreign-Secretary Margaret Hamburg of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine says: “This is only the start of our engagement in the subject. Our five academies have launched the call, but tackling this issue will need the participation of many more researchers and institutions. We invite science academies, research institutes, universities and individual scientists worldwide to join the initiative and engage to help solve this global crisis.”

President Luiz Davidovich of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences says: “Air pollution and climate change share an important, common source: the combustion of fossil fuels, that is why tackling air pollution will also help us make progress towards combating climate change.”

President Jörg Hacker of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina says: “National Academies are uniquely placed to address complex issues such as the interplay between air pollution and health. Academies are independent fora where scientists from all disciplines come together to exchange and reflect upon their findings. Such a collaboration across disciplines is essential to find solutions to these problems”.

Unequivocal scientific evidence shows that air pollution affects human health across our entire lifespan. It can affect everyone, even unborn babies, with young, old and vulnerable people impacted the most. The health impacts include the premature deaths of at least 5 million people per year, as well as chronic health conditions like heart disease, asthma, COPD, diabetes, allergies, eczema and skin ageing. Air pollution also contributes to cancer, stroke and slows lung growth of children and adolescents. Evidence is growing that air pollution contributes to dementia in adults and impacts brain development in children.

Burning of fossil fuels and biomass for heat, power, transport and food production is the main source of air pollution. The global economic burden of disease caused by air pollution across 176 countries in 2015 was estimated to be USD 3.8 trillion. Measures, which could have positive impacts on reducing air pollution, are woefully underinvested in.

The statement is available in all official UN languages as well as in German and Portuguese at: