The Planet’s Health and Human Health are Inextricably Linked—Action to Protect Them Must Be Too.

For years, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition has championed the message that acting on the climate and clean air won’t just help global warming, it will also have an immense impact on public health. That message is catching on.

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Severe air pollution over New Delhi, India.

In September, the United Nations hosted the first ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. Around the world, 28 members of BreatheLife — a global campaign to reduce air pollution for our health and the climate — used it to rally support for vital efforts to reduce air pollution.

“Blue skies are a sign of a healthy environment and clean air. Unfortunately, in many countries, there is too little awareness of just how important blue skies are and how damaging, if not lethal, dirty air can be.” said German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Svenja Schulze. 

Lethal indeed— with 9 out of 10 people breathing highly polluted air, it is responsible for 7 million lost lives every year. The annual welfare costs from air pollution are estimated to be over $5 trillion, about the size of the gross domestic product of India, Canada, and Mexico combined. Climate change is closely linked: in the 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gases, air pollution is estimated to cost over 4 per cent of their GDP. And while research is still nascent, a growing body of evidence also suggests that air pollution may be exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, climate change itself is taking a worsening health toll through heat-aggravated illnesses, increases in vector borne diseases, and decreased access to safe water and food.

“Living in the year 2020 where the world is in the midst of unprecedented difficulties caused by COVID-19 and natural disasters such as heat waves and floods, I hope that collective efforts of humanity will go beyond tackling fine dust and extend to addressing more fundamental issues of the climate crisis,” said Korean President Moon Jae-in on the day.

Inger Andersen message for International Day of Clean Air for blue skies 2020

Inger Andersen message for International Day of Clean Air for blue skies 2020
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, on the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies 2020

The link between planetary health and human health is well-known. But for years action was siloed between environmental specialists and organizations, and public health specialists and organizations. Different experts were essentially doing the same work. Since its creation, the CCAC’s Health Initiative has championed the message that because air pollution and climate change are inextricably linked, with emissions coming from the same sources, approaches to  reduce them must be integrated.

The key to this work is reducing short-lived climate pollutants. These super pollutants are not only many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, they also pollute the air and result in widespread negative effects on both crops and human health. Particles of black carbon, for example, negatively affect ecosystems by covering plant leaves and increasing their temperature, dimming sunlight, and modifying rainfall patterns, all of which can have dramatic effects on crops. 

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Black carbon (or soot) is both a dangerous air pollutant and a powerful climate forcer.

Black carbon is also a key component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution, the leading environmental cause of poor health and premature deaths through things like heart and lung disease, strokes, and heart attacks. It is also responsible for premature deaths of children from acute lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia. It's not just black carbon— methane and ozone (of which methane is a precursor) also have dramatic health and agricultural impacts. 

During the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies the CCAC played an important role in linking climate change, air pollution and health. “The CCAC is working across sectors and with all levels of government to drive solutions that we know will improve our health and slow the rate of climate change,” said Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the CCAC Secretariat. “There is a huge opportunity to rebuild post-COVID to have a healthier and more sustainable world.”

“Air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health, causing 7 million premature deaths annually from diseases like stroke, heart and lung cancer.  Clean energy, better waste management and smart cities are part of the solution," said Borge Brende, the President of World Economic Forum on the day.

High-Level Agenda Setting

The CCAC and its partners have played a role in ensuring that the link between the health effects of air pollution and climate change are evident at the highest levels of international government.

“Polluted air is killing millions of people around the globe prematurely and severely impacting their quality of life,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which hosts the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Secretariat. “The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is addressing these two issues together. Action on either front contributes to the goals of the other.”

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Air Pollution Pods highlight the links between cliamte change and air pollution at the UN Secretary General's Climate Change Summit at UN Headquarters in New York, September 2019,

In September 2019, 138 governments collectively committed to achieving World Health Organization (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines through implementation of their climate change and air pollution policies by 2030. The CCAC and BreatheLife supported the United Nations Secretary General’s push for governments to join this new Clean Air Initiative with the knowledge that siloed action is more expensive and less effective.

Given that air pollution does not respect national borders, these high-level, international conversations are incredibly important. In 2015, the CCAC’s Health Initiative helped support the adoption of the landmark Resolution "Health and the environment: addressing the health impact of air pollution" at the 68th World Health Assembly. In 2017, the Health Initiative also supported adoption of the United Nations Environmental Assembly Resolution “Preventing and reducing air pollution to improve air quality globally” which explicitly encourages “cities and local governments to consider participating in, as appropriate, the BreatheLife campaign” as way to act on the health and environmental impacts of air pollution.

Knowledge is Power

The CCAC has also played an important role strengthening the publicly available body of evidence that climate change and air pollution are linked. In 2015, the CCAC and WHO launched a report titled “Reducing global health risks through mitigation of short-lived climate pollutants: A scoping report for policymakers” which highlights more than 19 available and affordable SLCP mitigation actions, pointing out the ones that could both significantly improving health and reducing near-term climate change. The CCAC is currently supporting the WHO’s work to develop a training toolkit to strengthen the ability of health workers to deal with air pollution and health-related issues. This includes information about air pollutants and their sources, the latest scientific information about the impact of air pollutants, and policies and interventions to reduce ambient and household concentrations.

Building a Road Map

Setting international intentions and increasing the world’s information base is not helpful if countries and cities don’t have a roadmap for actual implementation. The CCAC is helping lead this work as well, setting out specific plans to fulfill global ambitions.

In 2016, the CCAC’s Health Initiative supported the development of the World Health Assembly’s “Road map for an “enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution,” which called for joint action with other United Nations agencies to support policy change and leadership, specifically on the BreatheLife campaign. In 2018, on the margins of the 71st World Health Assembly, WHO, WMO, UN Environment and the CCAC launched an action plan to tackle environmental threats to health which explicitly included air pollution and climate change.

Be Global, Act Local

Implementation of these two integrated ideas is also happening at a local level. In 2017, the first Urban Health Initiative pilot project was launched in Accra, Ghana to reduce deaths and diseases as a result of air and climate pollutants. The WHO is also developing guidance and tools to assess, plan, and finance healthy and climate-adapted cities and to assess the full range of health and economic impacts from sector policies and air quality interventions.  This pilot project has also helped to cultivate data to increase the understanding of air pollutants in Accra, including on ambient air pollution, household energy, waste, and other sources of air pollution.

In Cali and Aburra Valley, Colombia the Clean Air Institute and WHO-PAHO helped them estimate the burden of disease attributable to air pollution. Using the epidemiology surveillance system which gave baseline disease rates, the air quality monitoring network, and population and GIS databases they identified relevant relative risk coefficients and dose-response functions for assessing the air pollution burden of disease. They also conducted a climate benefit analysis to determine the carbon footprint of the healthcare system that included SLCPs.

Thanks to the CCAC’s work, this location action is catching on around the world— and it's a message that is more important now than ever.

“Humankind is facing a threat beyond imagination. The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather events may be the last warning from the Earth to humans. Now we must answer the climate crisis warning. Regardless of borders, it is time for the whole world to switch to a net-zero system for a sustainable future.” said Yeom Tae-young, Mayor of Suwon City, Republic of Korea at an event for the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies “Please remember that you are also the leading player in climate action and let us join hands to make clean air for all.”

Suwon City, Republic of Korea Clean Air Day message

Suwon City, Republic of Korea Clean Air Day message
Yeom Tae-young's, Mayor of Suwon City, message for International Day of Clean Air for blue skies.

Other video messages from Mayors for the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies can be found here

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