Air pollution is at the center of a global catastrophe in public health, the economy, agriculture, biodiversity, the environment, and the climate that impacts and requires immediate attention from all parts of society. Extensive research shows that prenatal, neonatal, and newborn exposure to air pollution negatively impacts their health. This is especially true for the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, the chronically ill, and young children.
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s population currently breathes air that is safe per World Health Organization standards. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that air pollution causes 7 million deaths each year, including an estimated 600,000 deaths in children younger than 15 years old, and that doesn’t even take into consideration the many millions more who suffer from air pollution-related chronic illnesses.
World Health Organization (WHO) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Chief Scientists have united to bring attention to this issue. This is why “the Air We Share” will be the focus of the 2022 International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, with an emphasis on cooperation and mutual benefit.
Ecosystems aren’t the only things harmed by air pollution. The acidification and eutrophication (over-enrichment with nutrients) of water systems are both caused by the deposition of sulfur and nitrogen. Reduced plant growth, vitality, photosynthesis, water balance, flowering processes, and the ability of vegetation to store carbon are just some of the ways that tropospheric ozone can severely impact ecosystems and lead to loss of biodiversity. Air pollution is one of the many types of pollution that are categorized as a danger to biodiversity on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There are 7,427 species of vertebrates on land, and 1,181 of those are considered endangered due to pollution, with 64 of those being especially vulnerable to air pollution.
The nutritional value and productivity of important crops can both be negatively impacted by ozone exposure. Recent research has shown that elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the environment reduce the food’s nutritional value. Economic losses caused by ozone’s effect on 23 crops were estimated at US$26 billion in 2006. Harmful quantities of air pollutants can have an effect on water systems, and air pollution can also reduce vegetation’s capacity to filter water.
High economic consequences are associated with air pollution, including time away from work or school owing to asthma, higher medical bills, lower crop yields, and a drop in the worldwide competitiveness of towns with poor air quality. The World Bank estimated in 2021 that the health costs associated with air pollution amounted to US$8.1 trillion, or 6.1% of world GDP in 2019.
However, many air pollutants can travel hundreds to thousands of kilometers from a site of emission and still have an impact on regions and even continents far away from where they initially formed. Soil mineral dust and sand, which accounts for about 40% of total aerosols in the lower atmosphere, can remain in the atmosphere for as long as a week, allowing it to be transported over continents; this has far-reaching consequences for human health, agricultural productivity, transportation networks, economic activity, and climate around the world.
Last but not least, many of the same sources that emit greenhouse gases also release air pollutants, strengthening the connection between the two. This suggests that improvements in air quality may result from the implementation of policies and actions that aim to reduce emissions of climate pollutants. On the flip side, they have many ways in which they might exacerbate one another. Wildfires become more common as temperatures rise, contributing to elevated levels of airborne particulate matter that contain several other air pollutants, most notably ozone and black carbon (a component of PM2.5), which can alter weather patterns and hasten the melting of snow and ice in colder regions.
The good news is that air pollution is a preventable and manageable danger, albeit one that is complex and calls for a concerted response from the government. However, many countries and cities around the world have shown remarkable decreases in emissions and pollutant concentrations where strong policies, regulations, and monitoring systems have been put in place, despite the fact that air pollution has not been solved anywhere. The problem is especially severe in urban and industrial areas of low- and middle-income countries. Polluted air can travel across state lines and across cities. We are all connected by the air we breathe, and a long-term solution to this problem will need concerted effort and coordination on a global scale.
By cooperating more closely at the international level to understand the scope of the problem, share information, identify gaps in the knowledge needed by countries to act, and encourage the agencies they represent to coordinate their efforts at the national scale to reduce the air pollution threat more quickly, the chief scientists at UNEP, WHO, IUCN, and WMO will contribute to a more integrated and systems-based approach to address air pollution.
In this vein, we urge scientists, businesspeople, policymakers, and politicians to join forces to:
- Maintain and enhance multi-scalar cooperation on transboundary air pollution, with a focus on integrated monitoring, reporting, and the exchange of lessons learned and best practices. This entails bolstering and integrating regulations, as well as the capacity of institutions worldwide to create the knowledge, tools, ground-based observations, and data necessary to implement successful policies to reduce air pollution.
- Let’s get behind the creation of a global network of ground stations to monitor air pollution levels. Networks of scientists working in tandem with UN agencies to create chemistry-transport models will help paint a clear picture of where pollutants are dispersed around the world and will provide countries with the instructions they need to combat air pollution.
- Find the shared advantages of action and the policies that will have the greatest impact on a number of different objectives and national priorities and imperatives. There are several potentials to multiply the effects of our efforts and spark even more ambitious mitigation efforts because of the connections between reducing air pollution, slowing climate change, protecting biodiversity, ensuring food security, and fostering development. If these are utilized, the world will be set on a course that leads to the highest possible benefit, the lowest possible chance of policy failure, and the achievement of national development priorities.
- Do things to manage air pollution that is supported by science, like, for instance,
- Incorporating the World Health Organization’s recommendations for improving air quality at the national level could reduce deaths from pollution by 80 per cent and significantly cut health care costs and government spending.
- Given the massive CO2 emissions from this sector worldwide, all countries should switch to solar and electric power for their healthcare systems;
- Through the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATTACH), which includes more than 57 nations and is chaired by the World Health Organization (WHO), COP26 has committed to implementing measures to ensure a climate-resilient and sustainable health system.
- Rather than burning it, agricultural waste from a crop might be tilled back into the soil (responsible for a significant proportion of pollution in many parts of the world every year).
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Just a few of the many evidence-based measures that can be adopted to reduce air pollution and improve climate, public and ecosystem health, food security, and sustainable development are listed above. Please see the following for further information and potential courses of action:
- Information and tools for local, regional, and global action on air pollution are available on the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies website.
- Policies and measures that governments and communities may adopt to fully address air pollution are included in the Compendium of WHO and other UN guidelines on health and the environment for ambient and indoor air pollution.
- The World Health Organization’s 2021 Global Air Quality Guidelines offer advice on how to manage certain types of particle air pollution and set interim targets for six important air pollutants.
- For more information about sand and dust storms (SDS) and how to prepare for and respond to them, check out the UN Convention to Combat Desertification’s Sand and Dust Storms Compendium.
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