27 Mar 2019 Story Air

25 steps to end millions of deaths from “the new tobacco”

Air pollution isn’t a new problem. We’ve been worried about smog for centuries, from the infamous “pea souper” smogs of 19th century London to the hazes that regularly engulf cities from Beijing to Delhi in the present day. What is new, however, is the awareness of exactly how bad it is for our health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution-related diseases claim seven million lives each year. But bad air doesn’t just kill. In 2018, studies linked air pollution to everything from millions of cases of diabetes to lower intelligence levels. Little wonder that World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calls air pollution “the new tobacco”.

But with this bad news comes a determination to act. 2018 saw the first-ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, organized by the World Health Organization in collaboration with UN Environment and others, where participants pledged to reduce air pollution deaths by two thirds by 2030. At this meeting, UN Environment, the Asia Pacific Clean Air Partnership (APCAP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) launched 25 solutions for Asia-Pacific to make this goal a reality.

Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-based Solutions lays out 25 policy and technological measures, covering everything from industry to energy to agriculture. Together, these measures could save millions of lives and let one billion more people breathe clean air by 2030. And work is already under way in a region where four billion people—92 per cent of the population—are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Take electric mobility, one of the 25 measures. Philippines and Sri Lanka, supported by UN Environment, have begun to tax electric and hybrid vehicles lower than conventional vehicles. The impact has been clear. The number of electric and hybrid cars in Sri Lanka’s active fleet grew 10 times between 2013 to mid-2018, with 150,000 such vehicles now on the streets. This growth saw the percentage of cleaner vehicles in the active fleet rise from 4 per cent in 2013 to 23 per cent by mid-2018. In the capital Colombo, where past research showed heavy traffic accounts for over 50 per cent of air pollution, this can make a real difference to human health.

“We acknowledge the importance of promoting cleaner and more efficient fuels and vehicles, and we welcome the support of UN Environment,” said Sugath Yalegama, Director-General, Sustainable Development Council, Government of Sri Lanka. “Due to the more comprehensive vehicle excise tax, we now have more hybrid and electric vehicles on the road.”

This is just one example. Implementing all 25 measures fully would lead to a 56 per cent lower fine particulate matter exposure across Asia-Pacific in 2030 compared to 2015.

But air pollution is a global problem. For example, replacing the current fleet of buses and taxis in 22 Latin American cities could save 36,500 lives by 2030. This is why UN Environment, through its MOVE platform and with the support of Euroclima+, is assisting Argentina, Colombia and Panama with national electric mobility strategies, and is helping Chile and Costa Rica to expand the use of electric buses.

“Latin America has the greenest electricity matrix in the world, the fastest growing emissions of the transport sector and the highest use per capita of public transport globally,” says Gustavo Mañez, UN Environment Climate Change Coordinator in Latin America and the Caribbean. “The region is uniquely positioned to take advantage of electric mobility.”

Much more is happening across the globe. Breathe Life, a campaign by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment, is running initiatives that cover 52 cities, regions and countries, and reach over 153 million citizens. For example, campaign partners energized the public through a sporting challenge that saw 55,000 people pledge to commute by bicycle or on foot. There are now more than a million electric cars in Europe. The rise of renewable energy will help, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year.

All of this work is having an impact. The World Health Organization in 2018 found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in particulate matter pollution between 2010 and 2016. We have a long way to go, but with all of the new science showing solutions, UN Environment and partners are pushing harder than ever to end the threat of this invisible killer.

Learn more about our work on air pollution and on chemicals and waste.


This article is part of a series of stories highlighting UN Environment’s work and published in the 2018 Annual Report.