World governments called for “rapid, large-scale and co-ordinated action against pollution” on Wednesday, capping the United Nations Environment Assembly with a strong commitment to protect human health and our common environment from an existential threat.
“We the world’s ministers of the environment, believe that every one of us should be able to live in a clean environment. Any threat to our environment is a threat to our health, our society, our ecosystems, our economy, our security, our well-being and our very survival,” they said in a declaration after the three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Assembly brought together hundreds of policymakers and scientists, business and civil society leaders to identify ways to combat the pollution and contamination that pushes millions of people into an early grave each year, and is degrading Earth’s resources and life-support systems.
The ministers pledged a raft of measures, including stepped-up monitoring of pollution, efforts to promote more sustainable lifestyles and reduce waste and better management of chemicals. Businesses, civil society and individuals all had a responsibility to act, they said.
Delegates also drew up a raft of resolutions reinforcing the commitment to tackle air, water and soil pollution as well as the contamination of the ocean with plastics and other waste.
UN Environment head Erik Solheim said the Assembly was an “astonishing success.”
The challenge now is “how do we translate that into real changes in people’s lives. That is what matters,” Solheim said at the closing news conference, identifying plastic pollution, air quality and chemicals as priority areas.
There was progress on one key front when five more countries, including Mongolia and Colombia, joined UN Environment’s BreatheLife campaign against air pollution, which causes an estimated 6.5 million premature deaths every year. More than 100 cities also support the drive, which aims to reduce air pollution to safe levels by 2030.
“What we need is more and more mayors, municipalities, regions, cities joining us,” Maria Neira of the World Health Organization, a key partner in the campaign, said at a signing ceremony. The commitments made in the campaign “will generate lots of benefits for human health.”
“The most important and immediate right to life is the air that we breathe every day,” said actor Dia Mirza, UN Environment’s newly appointed Goodwill Ambassador for India. “We have to do more to combat and mitigate air pollution, not just in India but everywhere.”
Earlier, a study launched at the Assembly underlined the need to keep on raising awareness of the dangers of pollution by revealing that even environmental policymakers can be unwittingly affected by pernicious pollutants.
Analysis of hair samples taken from 180 delegates representing 75 countries at a recent conference on the Minimata Convention to control mercury showed that most of them had a level of the metal in their bodies above alert thresholds for health problems including brain damage and intelligence loss.
The report, prepared by the IPEN network, said the results showed that no-one was safe from mercury contamination and called for the phasing-out of coal-fired power plants, a ban on the mercury trade that serves small-scale gold mining, and for clean-ups of contaminated sites.
Wednesday also saw events highlighting Kenya’s successfully implemented ban on plastic bags and how businesses as disparate as slaughterhouses and airports can contribute to the gathering efforts to combat pollution. It also saw the last of a series of leadership dialogues, this time focused on how tackling air pollution also helps counter global warming.
Delegates also got a more digestible slice of information about pollution, with a screening of “Chasing Coral,” a documentary on the fragile beauty of marine ecosystems. UN Environment on Tuesday made director Jeff Orlowski a Champion of the Earth for his work spreading powerful environmental messages to a global audience.