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Air quality is difficult to visualize, making it easy to forget and thus a challenge to keep at the top of people’s minds– but one artist has given it a whirl, and his exhibition, brought to the UN Headquarters this week by the World Health Organization, is generating lively discussions by its influential visitors on the links among air pollution, climate change, health and subnational action.
Michael Pinsky’s Pollution Pods, which replicate (with harmless specially-crafted scents and climate control) the very different air quality conditions in five different cities, are giving attendees to the Climate Action Summit a firsthand smell experience of wandering through Beijing, New Delhi, Sao Paulo, London and a pristine Norwegian island.
Delegates to the first WHO Global Air Pollution and Health Conference in October last year would be familiar with the pods, which added a public, interactive and visceral dimension to the intense discussions in Geneva on what the WHO has long called a public health emergency— and one with direct links to climate change mitigation.
Among the Pods’ visitors were climate activist Greta Thunberg, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment Maritime Affairs & Fisheries Karmenu Vella, Italy’s Minister of Environment Sergio Costa, Spain’s Minster of Environment Teresa Ribera, Mayor of Accra Mohammed Adjei Sowah, COP25 High-Level Climate Champion Gonzalo Muñoz Abogabir, and Managing Director of the newly-minted and launched Clean Air Fund Jane Burston.
“This whole sustainability crisis, in a way, all these problems, the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, air pollution… these are all linked and we need to change our mindset when it comes to that. It is unacceptable, because these are human lives and it’s affecting our health. These are not just numbers, we need to see them as people.” ~ Climate activist Greta Thunberg
“It’s what we should understand as two-for-one. If we actually move beyond fossil fuels, which is what we have to do urgently, then we’re improving and reducing global pollution but we’re also markedly reducing local air pollution. This is such a win-win. In most cities, we know that the cost of the climate change measures would be more than overcome by the savings in public health costs, so how are we not doing this yet? Those of us who work on climate change, we tend to think about gigatonnes of greenhouse gases and we tend to forget that this is all about humans— that’s what it’s all about. So yes, the Paris Agreement is also a public health agreement.” ~ Former UNFCCC chief, Christiana Figueres
“It is also a human rights agreement. Very important human rights like the right to health is really affected. We need to think not only on the global level but also on the local level. I think it is very important to work with a network of Mayors. In the mid- and long-term, (taking action) would be less costly than all the consequences of not dealing with these issues. I have asked the World Bank and the IMF to cost this— because they normally cost what it costs to introduce measures, but they do not cost the consequences of not doing what we need to.” ~ UN Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet
“We need to urgently tackle climate change and keep temperatures from exceeding dangerous thresholds. Reducing short-lived climate pollutants is an essential ingredient of our strategy. Polluted air is killing millions of people around the globe prematurely and severely impacting their quality of life. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is addressing these two issues together. Action on either front contributes to the goals of the other.” ~ UN Environment chief, Inger Anderson
“I massively congratulate the artist and the WHO for bringing it to these grounds and having the world leaders go through it to really experience, if only for five minutes, what people around the world are experiencing every single day.” ~ Managing Director, Clean Air Fund, Jane Burston
Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed and Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus open the Pollution Pods art installation at the Climate Action Summit.
Clockwise from top left: Minister of Environment, Spain, Teresa Ribera; Minister of Environment, Italy, Sergio Costa; Commissioner for Environment Maritime Affairs & Fisheries, European Commission, Karmenu Vella; and Mayor of Accra, Ghana, Mohammed Adjei Sowah.