Without air there can be no life, but today, this vital resource has become an invisible killer; the pollutants that clog our lungs and seep into our bloodstreams are also accelerating climate change and threatening the health of the planet.
What causes air pollution?
The main sources of air pollution include, burning fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and heating, industrial activities, poor waste management, agricultural practices, and natural processes like volcanic eruptions and dust storms.
What dangers does air pollution pose to our health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers attributable to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million), lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths). Some 3.8 million deaths occur every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from cook stoves and fuels.
Who is at risk from increased air pollution?
An estimated 91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits. Air pollution disproportionately affects people living in poorer, developing nations; the 3.8 million people who die each year from indoor air pollution are overwhelmingly from developing countries, where people living in poverty must cook with dirty fuels in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Around 3 billion people still cook using solid fuels – such as wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung – and kerosene in open fires and inefficient stoves.
Geographically, 4 of the approximately 7 million people who die from air pollution-related diseases every year live in the Asia Pacific region. According to the 2019 State of Global Air report, the region with the second-highest exposures to particulate matter pollution in 2017 was western sub-Saharan Africa.
How does air pollution impact climate?
Air pollution and climate change are two sides of the same coin; many air pollutants, such as black carbon or ground-level ozone – the main ingredient in smog – have important impacts on the climate.
A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that if the planet is to succeed in limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, as codified by the Paris Agreement, deep and simultaneous reductions of CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon are necessary.
What is UN Environment doing about air pollution?
Through the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, UN Environment helps countries reduce urban air pollution by adopting cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicle technologies and standards. Alongside the World Health Organization and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, UN Environment is part of the global Breathe Life campaign, which aims to mobilize cities and individuals to protect our health and planet from the effects of air pollution. Fifty-two cities, regions and countries have signed up, with 173 actions supported, benefitting more than 153 million citizens. The BreatheLife campaign hopes to sign up at least 500 cities and 20 countries by 2020; the aim is to meet WHO air quality targets by 2030.
UN Environment has designed, built and tested a low-cost air quality monitoring unit that transmits data securely. The technology is currently being piloted in Kenya.
In addition, UN Environment continues to raise awareness of the need to clear the air; we provide data and tell the stories of the impact of air pollution on daily life. We also partner with international and local environment champions to encourage improved policies and practices geared towards reducing our exposure to air pollution and its risks.
What can governments do?
Governments can create national, regional and international frameworks to tackle this critical issue. They can inform their citizens of the dangers posed by air pollution, and to act on minimizing the risks, including by supporting the renewable energy sector and reductions in the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
Governments can also drive the switch to electric mobility by providing infrastructure, information and incentives. They can implement increased emissions standards and controls on vehicles, power plants and large and small-scale industry; they can require industry to reduce and eliminate emissions of harmful air pollutants, and can improve waste management by prohibiting the open burning of garbage, among other measures.
The switch is already happening, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year. But we need to move faster. Increasingly, we are also seeing Governments legislating for change, including a number of countries aiming to ban petrol and diesel vehicles to improve their air quality.
What can you do to reduce air pollution?
It is your responsibility to reduce the toxins that pollute our atmosphere. Not everyone can change their circumstances but if those who can do, we can become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Some simple steps you can take to #BeatAirPollution include: use public transport or car sharing; cycle or walk; compost organic food items and recycle non-organic trash; reduce your consumption of meat and dairy to help cut methane emissions and save energy by turning off lights and electronics not in use.
I live in a highly polluted area – how can I protect myself and my family?
You can check local pollution levels each day using tools such as BreatheLife2030’s monitoring meter and be aware of guidance from city or national authorities to determine whether to limit outdoor activity or avoid hotspots where air pollution levels may be elevated. In more and more cities, you can track the local air quality in the media or online.
Shift regular outdoor activity indoors in times when air pollution levels are highest. In many cities, pollution peaks in the late morning and early evening during rush hour traffic.
Avoid driving during peak times and keep windows closed while in traffic. Some research suggests that nearby exhaust can increase air pollution levels inside your car.