01 Dec 2017 Story Air

The right to breathe clean air

By Alan Andrews, leader of the Clean Air Project at the non-profit environmental law group ClientEarth

Clean air is fundamental to healthy human life. Yet the vast majority of the world’s population lives in places where they are exposed to poor air quality, with estimated 6.5 million deaths associated with exposure to air pollution in 2012 alone. This has the potential to get significantly worse, as population growth, economic growth and urbanization cram ever more people into increasingly polluted cities.

Even in relatively wealthy Europe, air pollution continues to take a heavy toll on health, causing around 400,000 early deaths annually. With air quality failing to meet legal standards in the majority of European Union countries, people and environmental organizations are increasingly going to court to demand action.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of political will, a symptom of a legal and political order which puts private profit before public health.

ClientEarth has been at the centre of this movement. Building on a landmark 2014 ruling from the European Court of Justice which embedded the right to clean air in European Union law, ClientEarth is working with partners across Europe to bring cases before national courts. These cases are spurring action to protect human health. At the same time, they are delivering significant benefits for climate change mitigation.

Courts in Germany have ordered regional governments to consider banning diesel in city centres in order to achieve air quality standards. Courts in Poland upheld a ban on solid fuel burning in Krakow to tackle winter smogs that see particulate matter reach levels many times higher than legal limits. This ban will come into force in 2019.

©: NOMAD

Pollution knows no boundaries

This is undoubtedly good news for the health of people in Europe. However, though harmful and illegal, air quality in most European cities is far better than in developing countries. While Krakow could lay claim to being one of Europe’s most polluted cities, it would not even feature in a list of the world’s 100 most polluted cities – that list is dominated by cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Even if we export our pollution, it may yet come back to haunt us.

Europe’s strides to clean up its air could even exacerbate pollution elsewhere. Just as the tobacco industry is recruiting new smokers in Asia and Africa to replace former Western smokers, so the European automotive industry will seek out new markets for the diesel vehicles no longer welcome or wanted on Europe’s roads. If Europe solves its air quality problems by exporting them abroad, any health gains made may correspond with worsening health in the developing world.

Air pollution knows no boundaries. Pollution can be transported thousands of kilometres, as we occasionally realize in the United Kingdom when dust blown from the Sahara mixes with home-grown pollution to turn the sky, and pollution indices, an alarming red. Toxic ozone and the urban and industrial pollutants that combine to produce it can also travel long distances – we need to see action to reduce the precursor gases. In short, even if we export our pollution, it may yet come back to haunt us.

A right to clean air

Air pollution is one of the biggest global environmental and health challenges and a global response is needed. At the heart of the problem is a lack of political will, a symptom of a legal and political order which puts private profit before public health. Part of the global response must therefore be legal frameworks which give effect to the right to breathe clean air. This must be a universal right, enshrined in national and international law, and upheld by the courts.

The sources and characteristics of air pollution are complex and varied, and so are the solutions. However, from a legal perspective, there are some universal principles that can and must apply everywhere.

First, that in order to breathe clean air, people must be protected by clear and binding legal standards. This ensures that politicians are made accountable for protecting human health and that empty promises don’t give way to political expedience.

In order to breathe clean air, people must be protected by clear and binding legal standards.

Second, those standards need to be based on the best scientific evidence on the harm caused by exposure to air pollution. In the absence of any evidence of a threshold effect – i.e. a level at which air poses no risk to human health – the lower we can drive down pollution, the better. The World Health Organization’s guidelines are often used as a proxy but can be criticized as being somewhat arbitrary and in some cases unrealistic, particularly for cities in the developing world. When fine particulate matter reaches 700 micrograms per cubic metre, as it has in Delhi and Beijing in recent years, the guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre seems a distant and unattainable dream.

While World Health Organization levels are useful as a long-term objective, what is needed is binding legal obligations which require year-on-year reductions in human exposure to pollution, against measurable and clearly understood benchmarks.

Third, legal standards are meaningless unless they are enforced. Strong, independent regulators are needed to oversee compliance by governments and the private sector, but this will not be sufficient. Regulators too often fall victim to industry capture or political interference – see for example the failure of European regulators to deal with the “dieselgate” emissions scandal sparked by revelations that Volkswagen had deliberately cheated pollution tests.

Citizen rights

The answer is to make people guardians of the air they breathe. People need to be equipped with three procedural tools in order to defend their right to breathe clean air.

First, the right to access information about air quality (ideally through the provision of live data from monitoring stations, supplemented by regular reports from trusted government or academic sources). The publication of data from the United States embassy’s monitoring station in Beijing via a Twitter feed was a shining example of the power of information.

Also, the right to participate in decisions and policymaking which affects air quality, such as the granting of industrial permits or the formulation of air quality plans.

Finally, and crucially, the right to go to court to enforce pollution laws against governments and companies alike.

Pollution is the theme of the 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly  in Nairobi, Kenya from 4 to 6 December. All governments as well as individuals, businesses and other organizations are urged to make concrete commitments to #BeatPollution around the world.

UN Environment’s #BreatheLife campaign partners with cities around the world to drive action to clean up the air we breathe. Write to your city leaders today to encourage them to join the campaign and commit to cutting pollution to safe levels by 2030.

The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of UN Environment.