Collective action needed to improve quality of the air we share

UN Environment | Aug 3, 2022 at 2:00 AM

The third edition of the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, which stresses the importance of clean air and the urgency to act to improve air quality and protect human health, will be commemorated on 7 September 2022. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 99 per cent of the world is now breathing polluted air. Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health and causes 7 million premature deaths annually.

The theme for this year’s day is The Air We Share. It focuses on the transboundary nature of air pollution while stressing the need for collective accountability through global, regional and local cooperation.

“Air pollution knows no borders and impacts us all, with people living in low- and middle-income countries bearing most of the burden,” said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy Division at the United Nations Environment Programme’. “The only way to mitigate the health and economic impacts of this problem is through collective action, which includes stronger international cooperation; collecting and sharing data and research and raising public awareness”.

In 2021, air pollution was responsible for US$8.1 trillion in healthcare costs, equivalent to  6.1 per cent of global GDP, according to a report by the World Bank. Some of the main drivers of air pollution include emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, and the burning of traditional fuels for household cooking, as well as agricultural and waste burning.

2.4 billion people are exposed to dangerous levels of household air pollution because they cook on open fires or unsafe stoves using solid fuels like kerosene, wood, animal dung and crop waste. WHO found that as a result, 3.8 million people die each year from household air pollution. Women and young children are the most vulnerable. Close to half of pneumonia deaths among children under 5 are because of household air pollution.

Outdoor pollution was also estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016 from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancers.

“Air pollution is a regional and global challenge as air pollutants not only stay sufficiently long in the atmosphere to be transported across administrative boundaries and national borders, but also play an important role in climate change,” said Martina Otto, Head of the Secretariat of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). “The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, now recognized by the UN General Assembly, is a big win to make sure that the very thing that keeps us alive – breathing – is not harming us at the same time”.

The International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, whose observance is facilitated by UNEP, was designated by the UN General Assembly in 2019, following the international community’s increasing interest in clean air. It emphasizes the need to make deliberate efforts to improve air quality to protect human health.

The occasion was first marked on 7 September 2020 under the rights-based theme of Clean Air For All. Thousands of people from all over the world participated in the observance. The event was launched by the then President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea, whose country led global efforts in creating the new international Day.

The second commemoration was held in 2021 under the theme Healthy Air, Healthy Planet, which emphasized the health aspects of air pollution. UNEP and partners announced the global elimination of the use of leaded petrol, a major achievement that will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths and save US$2.45 trillion a year.

Other ways to address air pollution include making a shift to renewable energy and modern bioenergy, adopting cleaner cooking fuels, switching to low-emission electric vehicles, transforming food systems, reducing trash and crop burning.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a UNEP-convened voluntary partnership of governments, intergovernmental organizations, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organizations committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate through actions to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.

To mark the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the coalition works with its partners and scientists to highlight achievements and promote regional action on this transboundary issue.

Every year, on 7 September, the world celebrates the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. The day aims to raise awareness and facilitate actions to improve air quality. It is a global call to find new ways of doing things, to reduce the amount of air pollution we cause, and ensure that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their right to breathe clean air. The theme of the third annual International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, facilitated by UNEP, is “The Air We Share”.