20 Oct 2017 Story Sustainable Development Goals

Lancet Commission: how developing countries can ‘leap-frog’ pollution on the road to prosperity

Preventing disease and ecosystem damage is cost-effective

Developing countries can boost their economies while dodging the health and environmental damage that scarred earlier industrialization by adopting strict anti-pollution policies and embracing clean new technologies for energy, production and transport.

Tackling pollution can also help all countries meet the Global Goals under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the alleviation of poverty, universal access to clean water and the protection of ecosystems.

These upbeat messages in a major new report echo UN Environment research carried out ahead of the UN Environment Assembly. The December gathering will discuss how to move towards a “pollution-free planet”.

Published Friday by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, the report argues that pollution and its impacts have been neglected. It says more resources – including international development assistance – must be allocated to prevent the often under-appreciated damage done to economies, people and ecosystems.

The report includes examples of strategies to control pollution and prevent disease that it describes as proven, cost-effective and transferable. Low- and middle-income countries could use them to “’leap-frog’ over the worst of the human and ecological disasters that have plagued industrial development in the past, and improve the health and well-being of their people,” the report says.

It cites estimates that pollution-related diseases cause productivity losses that reduce the Gross Domestic Product of low- to middle-income countries by up to 2 per cent. Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at $4.6 trillion a year, or 6.2 per cent of global output.

It warns that the burden of pollution could rise because of the proliferation of new and untested chemicals and the shift of chemical production to low- and middle-income countries where health and environmental protections are lacking.

There is also the legacy of a “global archipelago of contaminated ‘hot spots’ – cities and communities, homes and schoolyards polluted by toxic chemicals, radionuclides and heavy metals released into air, water and soil by active and abandoned factories, smelters, mines and hazardous waste sites.”

The report argues that the impacts of pollution have been neglected in part because of the “obsolete notion” that pollution and disease inevitably accompany the early stages of development. Fragmented responsibilities between environment and health agencies, and opposition from vested interests have also hindered wider recognition of pollution impacts and the availability of effective responses.

It calls for more research into pollution and its control, including the effects of ambient air pollution on children and the elderly, the health impacts of emerging pollutants such as endocrine disruptors and new pesticides, and into the health and economic benefits of action against pollution.

Other recommendations include increasing national and international funding for pollution control; integrating it into planning processes and global efforts to combat non-communicable diseases; and better monitoring of pollution and its health effects globally.

“The good news is that much pollution can be eliminated, and pollution prevention can be highly cost-effective,” the report says. “The claim that pollution control stifles economic growth and that poor countries must pass through a phase of pollution and disease on the road to prosperity has repeatedly been proven untrue.”

The Commission on Pollution and Health is an initiative of The Lancetthe Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It aims to reduce pollution by communicating its health and economic costs, providing actionable solutions to and dispelling the idea that pollution is inevitable.

UN Environment, which is a member of the global alliance, last month published Towards a Pollution-Free Planet, a background report to inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly, which takes place from 2-4 December in Nairobi, Kenya. All governments as well as individuals, businesses and other organizations are invited to sign the pledge and help #BeatPollution around the world.