All too often we take the air we breathe and share for granted. Only when we breathe very polluted air, when we can smell and see the pollution, do we realize that the air around us is a precious good that needs to be protected, much like the water we drink. On the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on 7 September, let’s take a moment to reflect on the air we breathe.
What happens when we breathe in polluted air? Air pollution affects every organ in the human body, can cause asthma, cancer and many other diseases, contributes to the climate crisis and also hurts the wallet: health costs and lost work days due to air pollution-related illness are estimated at or above 20% of GDP in 10 countries of the Pan-European region. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a staggering 7 million deaths are caused by air pollution every single year.
Alas, we are not the only ones to feel its devastating effects: air pollution also causes major environmental degradation, threatening almost two-thirds of Europe’s ecosystems.
But not only in Europe are people breathing in bad air. The air pollution problem is indeed a global one, with poor air quality making the news every other week in different parts of the world.
Fortunately, there are solutions to the air pollution crisis. In the UNECE region, Parties to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention) have been working together for over 40 years to ensure that the air remains breathable. In fact, everything started in the 1960, when scientists were investigating the causes of “acid rain” that was destroying forests, causing fish loss in lakes and putting entire ecosystems at risks in the Northern Hemisphere. They found that air pollutants, often traveling thousands of kilometres, were the culprit. Mounting scientific evidence, public outcry, significant diplomatic manoeuvring, and the backing of countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain then led to the signing of the Air Convention in 1979, the first multilateral, legally binding treaty to cut emissions of air pollutants on a regional basis.
What brought countries together at the time was the realization that no one country alone would be able to fight air pollution. In practice, this means that even if the country you live in reduces air pollution at the national level, the pollution that is transported over long distances and originating in neighbouring or far-away countries also has an influence on the air you breathe. Hence, it is of utmost importance that countries work together on solutions to reduce air pollution at the international level. Simply put: since we share the same air and pollutants know no borders, we need to find solutions together at all levels, the urban, national and at global level.
The Convention has demonstrated that if we work together on clean air, the results can be remarkable. Since its inception 40 years ago, the emissions of harmful substances including particulate matter and sulphur have been cut by 30-80% since 1990 in Europe and 30-40% in North America. In Europe, these measures account for 1 additional year of life expectancy, and prevent 600,000 premature deaths annually. Tackling some pollutants that are bad for air and climate at the same time, the Convention has also supported integrated approaches for clean air and climate action.
The Convention is also looking beyond its boundaries to provide a shared response to address the threat to human health and ecosystems from air pollution globally. To promote international collaboration to improve air quality globally, Parties to the Convention established a Forum for International Cooperation on Air Pollution. The aim of the forum is to exchange experiences on measures to reduce air pollution, share lessons learned from the Convention and other regions, and to inspire further action within and beyond the Convention framework to reduce air pollution.
A multitude of tools and guidance documents have been developed in the framework of the Air Convention over the years, which could also be used by countries in other regions in their efforts to address air pollution and improve air quality management. Most recently the secretariat developed an e-learning course, available in English and Russian, that aims to raise awareness about air pollution and its effects, ways to prevent and reduce harmful emissions, and the Convention and its protocols as an international framework for cooperation on cleaner air.
However, there are many more challenges to be tackled to reduce air pollution around the world. Findings under the Convention show that in the UNECE region, 90% of the population is still exposed to levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) that exceed the WHO Air Quality Guidelines. Ecosystems are also still threatened because of excessive nutrient nitrogen loading, mostly coming from ammonia emissions from agriculture.
What is really troubling is that background concentrations of ground-level ozone, which has a negative effect on our health, crops, and the climate, have increased over the last 20 years. While some precursor emissions (NO2, VOCs) have decreased, methane, a powerful greenhouse gas itself, proves to be the main driver behind increasing background ozone levels. Some of these methane emissions originate outside the UNECE region and counteract emission reductions within the region. In fact, some scenarios project an increasing trend in ozone-related mortality and crop losses within the UNECE region between 2020 and 2050 due to the growing impact of methane emissions outside the region. The Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP 26, through which over 120 countries have committed to reduce global methane emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, is hence not only critical for keeping with our climate goals, but also for air quality, including public health and agricultural productivity.
This shows that we need to raise the ambition to reduce harmful pollutants within and beyond the region. The Convention can and must lead the way to redouble our efforts in the quest for cleaner air.
We all want our human right to breathe clean air to be enforced, for ourselves and for our children. The experience of the last 40 years under the Air Convention shows that we can achieve cleaner air, provided we work together. Let’s live up to our collective responsibility.