In a message to mark 2019 World Environment Day, celebrated today, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has emphasised the link between worsening levels of air pollution and the climate crisis.
As well as claiming seven million lives every year, and damaging children’s development, the UN chief noted that many air pollutants cause global warming, which he has described as “an existential threat.”
In his video address, the UN Secretary-General recalled his recent experience in the South Pacific island states, which he visited last month to show solidarity with those suffering from the worst effects of climate change. Mr Guterres said that he had seen first-hand the severe and worsening impacts of the global climate emergency.
With the environment facing “unprecedented perils,” caused by human activity, the UN chief said that action to fight climate change is “the battle of our lives”, that we must win, by taxing pollution, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and halting the construction of new coal plants.
This complex, existential challenge demands immediate attention and action. More than 6 billion people, one-third of them children, regularly breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and well-being at risk. That’s more than 90 per cent of the world’s population. In many developing countries, people face the double burden of indoor and outdoor pollution.
Air pollution also goes to the heart of social justice and global inequality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. That percentage falls to 49 in high-income countries. The good news is that air pollution is preventable. The solutions – laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies – are widely known and can be implemented. Clean air is a human right. It is everyone’s right and everyone’s responsibility. Each one of us has a role to play in ensuring that the air we breathe does not end up killing us.
China makes ‘significant strides’ to tackle poor air quality
World Environment Day, widely celebrated in over 100 countries, is the United Nations day for encouraging international awareness and action to protect the environment. The theme for 2019 is air pollution, calling on governments, industry, communities and individuals to take action to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve the air quality in cities and regions across the world.
Every World Environment Day has a different host country: this year's host is China, with the official celebration taking place in the eastern city of Hangzhou, in the presence of senior Chinese government officials and Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Although the rapid development of many Chinese cities has led to poor air quality, and associated health problems for many citizens, the country has made significant strides in addressing the problem in recent years.
In the Chinese capital, Beijing, which has become almost synonymous with air pollution, the concentration of fine particulates (the tiny, deadly elements largely responsible for deaths and illnesses) in the air, has fallen by a third over the past two decades, beating the target set by the State Council, China’s main administrative body.
Speaking to UN News ahead of World Environment Day, Tiy Chung, Communications Officer for the Climate & Clean Air Coalition at UNEP, said that Beijing is “showing the way,” by taking the issue very seriously, and implementing strong policies. The city, he said, has taken a systematic approach based on good science, and coordinated successfully with surrounding cities and regions.
Looking at other cities and countries, Mr. Chung is hopeful that the world is moving in the right direction. “We are getting at a mix of good policies and technologies. Innovative low-emission technology is at the forefront of a new revolution driven by policies pushing for lower air pollution and de-carbonisation of economy.”
Tackling air pollution presents a double opportunity
The theme for this year’s World Environment Day is air pollution. All around the world – from megacities to small villages – people are breathing dirty air. An estimated nine out of 10 people worldwide are exposed to air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization air quality guidelines. This is lowering life expectancy and damaging economies across the planet.
According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “To improve air quality, we must know our enemy. Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are caused by tiny particles that penetrate our defences every time we fill our lungs. These particles come from many sources: the burning of fossil fuels for power and transport; the chemicals and mining industries; the open burning of waste; the burning of forests and fields; and the use of dirty indoor cooking and heating fuels, which are major problems in the developing world. This polluted air kills some 7 million people each year, causes long term health problems, such as asthma, and reduces children’s cognitive development. According to the World Bank, air pollution costs societies more than $5 trillion every year.”
“Tackling air pollution therefore presents a double opportunity, as there are many successful initiatives that both clear the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as phasing out coal-fired power plants and promoting less polluting industry, transport and domestic fuels. With investments in renewable energy sources outstripping those in fossil fuels every year, the rise of clean energy is helping globally. Cleaner transport is also growing around the world.
Today, we face an equally urgent crisis. It is time to act decisively. My message to governments is clear: tax pollution, end fossil fuel subsidies, and stop building new coal plants. We need a green economy not a grey economy.
On World Environment Day, I ask each of us to act so we can breathe more easily. From pressuring politicians and businesses to changing our own habits, we can reduce pollution and beat climate change. There is no time to lose. This is the battle of our lives. Solutions exist.
Reducing vehicle emissions is an important intervention to improve air quality, especially in urban areas. Policies and standards that require the use of cleaner fuels and advanced vehicle emissions standards can reduce vehicle emissions by 90 percent or more.”
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