As we all know, smoking kills, but polluted air – often less visible than tobacco smoke – can be equally deadly. To mark World Environment Day 2019, the UN launched the ‘Mask Challenge’ to highlight the need to take action and tackle the causes of air pollution and its impact on people’s health and the environment and improve air quality, both in developed and emerging countries.
The scale of the air pollution problem
Nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air at home or outdoors, the World Health Organisation estimates, killing some seven million around the world every year. Particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system cause diseases including stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections.
Source: Air quality and health, WHO
More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. Around three billion people – more than 40% of the world’s population – do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.
Needed: a faster pace of improvements
While the rate of access to clean fuels and technologies is increasing, improvements are not keeping pace with population growth in many parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa .
Clean air also features in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: promoting sustainable transport, clean energy, waste management and urban planning can all improve air quality and health. SDG 3 focuses on good health and well-being for all; SDG 7 targets access to clean and affordable energy; SDG 11 focuses on sustainable cities and communities and SDG 13 tackles climate change.
Reducing air pollution means tackling the five main human sources of poor air:
- Alleviate indoor air pollution by providing households – the vast majority in developing countries – with cleaner, more modern stoves and fuels to cook, heat and light homes.
- Incentivise industry to promote and use renewable energy sources and abandon coal-burning for power generation; adopt cleaner production, e.g. in the chemical and mining industries; move to energy efficiency and pollution control.
- In transport, reduce vehicle emissions to improve air quality, especially in urban areas; use cleaner fuels and advanced vehicle emissions standards.
- In agriculture, forestry and other land-use, reduce methane – a more potent GHG than carbon dioxide – by promoting plant-based, low meat and dairy diets and curbing food waste (and hence the need for methane-producing farming).
- Reduce the amount of waste that is burned or land-filled – practices which release harmful gases and particles – by improving the collection, separation and disposal of solid waste; use compost or bioenergy as an alternative source of energy.
At a personal level, people can help turn skies blue again, keep the lungs of the earth clean and limit the need to wear face masks by, for example, using public transport or sharing cars, cycling or walking, using hybrid or electric vehicles, and saving energy by turning off lights and electronics when not in use.
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— Source: WHO, https://www.who.int/airpollution/en/