The UN calls on cities, regions and countries to commit to “achieving air quality that is safe for its citizens, and to align its climate change and air pollution policies, by 2030”— and it is asking them to do so in the name of their citizens’ health.
This commitment is in line with the Paris climate agreement and supports the necessary transformation to a low-carbon society.
The rationale: the health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself.
When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost, and brings immediate and visible benefit to local populations, stresses the UN Secretary General, World Health Organization, UN Environment and Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the UN organizations leading the call.
That’s because climate change and air pollution are closely linked: the main driver of climate change, fossil fuel combustion, also contributes about two-thirds of outdoor air pollution— and the contribution of air pollution alone to poor health is staggering.
Each year, air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths (or about 1 in every 8 deaths), costs the global economy an estimated US$ 5.11 trillion (equivalent to all goods and services produced by the entire economy of Japan produced in 2013) in welfare losses and kills 600,000 children every year.
Its death toll is similar to that from tobacco smoking, making it one of the largest avoidable risks to human health.
In the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of air pollution are estimated to cost more than 4 per cent of their GDP— for perspective, that’s around the percentage the 2008 global recession shaved off the GDP of the European Union in a year.
A lack of progress in reducing emissions and building adaptive capacity threatens both human lives and the viability of national health systems, and erodes progress made on human health. This widespread understanding of climate change as a central public health issue is crucial to delivering an accelerated response.
Fortunately, this understanding is slowly growing. Public concern over the health impacts of air pollution is an increasing driver of social movements for action on climate change and overall environmental protection.
It may seem like common sense: improve the quality of the air humans must constantly breathe to survive, and you improve health, quality of life and general wellbeing.
But these numbers and these trends demonstrate just how big of an opportunity leaders at all levels of government are now faced with to simultaneously advance climate, health and sustainable development goals.
A unique opportunity to save lives, and more
The latest evidence shows that meeting the Paris Agreement on climate change— that is, holding global temperature rise to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels— would save over 1 million lives a year by 2050 through reduced air pollution alone.
It would also confer enormous health gains worth about twice the costs of mitigation; at the higher end of estimates, the health benefits from reduced air pollution alone are estimated at US$54.1 trillion for a global expenditure of US$22.1 trillion.
Co-benefits— the positive “side effects” of action— are considerable. Improving air quality by developing e-mobility, for example, would have an impact on public health (lower costs of healthcare), while reducing damage to the natural environment and significantly alleviating the unfavourable health symptoms caused by noise levels from conventional transport, especially in big cities. Adding viable, safe active transport options, such as cycling and walking, also boost physical activity and help prevent diseases like diabetes, lung cancer and heart disease.
In fact, the health benefits from improved air quality are lived experience. Just ask the United States and Mexico. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency estimated emission controls put in place because of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments avoided US$1.3 trillion in damages to health in 2010. And, in the 25 years to 2015, Mexico City added 3.2 to 3.4 years to the average life expectancy of its citizens and saved 22,500 to 28,000 lives, all by improving its air quality.
The Paris Agreement can be the strongest health agreement of this century, but much more needs to be done
Governments are beginning to recognize these connections, including obligations to protect “the right to health” in the Paris Agreement, and recognizing the “social, economic and environmental value of voluntary mitigation actions and their co-benefits for adaptation, health and sustainable development”.
Indeed, about 20 per cent of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement address health implications of mitigation, and a range of international initiatives support different parts of the mitigation agenda that have direct and indirect implications for health.
The growing BreatheLife network includes 63 cities, regions, and countries that have committed to actions that support both air quality and climate goals, for the health of their 271.4 million citizens.
But there is currently no overall initiative that brings together commitments to raise ambition— something still desperately needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement— to simultaneously mitigate climate change, reduce air pollution and promote health, in a comprehensive manner.
A Call to Action: Join BreatheLife
During the UN Climate Summit this coming September, the UN Secretary General, World Health Organization, UN Environment and Climate and Clean Air Coalition will call on national and subnational governments to commit to achieving air quality that is safe for its citizens, and to align its climate change and air pollution policies, by 2030.
Governments can meet this commitment through specifically committing to actions, such as:
• Implementing air quality and climate change policies that will achieve the WHO Ambient Air Quality Guideline values.
• Implementing e-mobility and sustainable mobility policies and actions with the aim of making a decisive impact on road transport emissions.
• Assessing the number of lives that are saved, the health gains in children and other vulnerable groups, and the avoided financial costs to health systems, that result from implementing their policies.
• Tracking progress, sharing experience and best practice through an international network supported by the Breathelife Action Platform.
These are realistic and achievable actions, as proven solutions and measures exist, and tools, resources and support are available to all stakeholders willing to commit to ambitious action on climate change and health.
The call is part of a wider movement to harness the social and political drivers to improve people’s health, reduce inequalities, promote social justice and maximise opportunities of decent work for all, while protecting the climate for future generations, led by a coalition driven by the World Health Organization (WHO), the governments of Peru and Spain, the United Nations Department Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Read more from the WHO: Health commitments for the SG Climate Action Summit
Banner photo by UNICEF