During the many events taking place in New York City as part of what is known locally as UN Week, high-level delegates took a moment to catch their breath.
The critical need to reduce air pollution while accelerating climate action and improving human health was highlighted in a series of Art 2030 installations launched at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Leaders taking part in the Climate Action and Sustainable Development Goals Summits, as well as activities related to the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, toured an installation organized by the World Health Organization called “Pollution pods”, by the artist Michael Pinsky, which recreates the air quality in five cities around the world.
The World Health Organization has recently called air pollution a “global public health emergency”, with 9 out of 10 people breathing air containing high levels of pollutants.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which hosts the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Secretariat, explained that tackling two of the world’s most serious threats—air pollution and the climate crisis—is critical to ensuring a sustainable future.
“We need to urgently tackle climate change and keep temperatures from exceeding dangerous thresholds,” said Andersen. “Reducing short-lived climate pollutants is an essential ingredient of our strategy,” she said.
“Polluted air is killing millions of people around the globe prematurely and severely impacting their quality of life,” she added. “The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is addressing these two issues together. Action on either front contributes to the goals of the other.”
Exploring another artistic installation representing our fundamental connection with the environment, “Breathe with me”, Andersen and UNEP’s Goodwill Ambassador Aiden Gallagher were among the first to paint their breath, in the form of two blue lines on exhaling, in long downward brush strokes.
The artist who created the installation, Jeppe Hein, said: “Life begins with an inhale and ends with an exhale. In-between we all breathe and live different lives. And yet, each breath keeps us together, connected, sharing the same air.”
UNEP is a partner in the larger Breathe Life campaign which mobilizes communities to reduce the impact of air pollution on our health and climate. The campaign supports cleaner air initiatives, promotes the use of clean energy, and helps cities, regions and countries develop policies and programmes to reduce air pollution.
At a separate event, ministers and Climate and Clean Air Coalition representatives put forward a 2030 Vision Statement to ensure warming is limited to 1.5˚C and that we drastically reduce air pollution.
According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, deep reductions in emissions of methane and black carbon are needed in order to limit global warming to this set standard.
The vision statement calls for accelerated efforts to cut short-lived climate pollutants in the next decade, and commitments to put the world on a “pathway that rapidly reduces warming in the near term and maximizes development, health, environmental and food security benefits”.
These efforts include aggressive carbon dioxide mitigation and a transition to a zero-carbon economy by mid-century.
Short-lived climate pollutants are many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet but because they are short-lived in the atmosphere, preventing emissions can rapidly reduce the rate of warming. Many are also dangerous air pollutants and reductions will benefit human health and ecosystems, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
Miguel Arias Cañete, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy at the European Commission, said mitigation efforts must urgently be stepped up in the global energy sector and called on countries to work with the Coalition to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production.
“We need a swift transition to a low-carbon and a more resource-efficient economy to meet these goals. This also requires more action on short-lived climate pollutants,” Arias Cañete said.
“Given the scale of the challenge, the European Commission is exploring further ways to better measure and report methane emissions across all hydrocarbon industries and reduce methane emissions from energy production and use. There is still a significant potential to reduce emissions with low costs.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on all leaders to come to New York this year with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.
Bringing solutions for cleaner air is among the accelerated climate actions proposed to strengthen economies and create jobs, while preserving natural habitats and biodiversity, and protecting our environment.
They can also support our quest for equality, with air pollution disproportionately affecting women, children and people in the developing world.
The UN Climate Action Summit takes place in New York City on 23 September 2019 to increase ambition and accelerate action on the global climate emergency and support the rapid implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The 2019 UN Climate Action Summit is hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.