29 Nov 2017 Story Green economy


By Ligia Noronha, Director of UN Environment’s Economy Division

Pollution is, in every way imaginable, a dirty word. It conjures up images of clouds of choking smog hazing city skylines, chemicals slicking the surface of waterways, or rubbish blowing across green fields from nearby landfills, and much more.

Yet, with such direct evidence of pollution’s extent plain to see, and research showing the huge economic and other damage it causes to people, nature and the economy, we have not done enough to protect human health and the environment from a problem entirely of our own making.

Growing pollution jeopardizes well-being opportunities, reduces quality of life, especially for children and the elderly, and disrupts the balance between people and nature. It’s long past-time to start cleaning up our own mess, and to stop creating it in the first place. We owe it to ourselves, to other life forms and to the planet we live on.

We have not done enough to protect human health and the environment from a problem entirely of our own making.

Part of the inertia comes from a long-held belief, slowly changing, that tackling pollution is an unbearable cost to industry and economic growth. In fact, not tackling pollution is bringing unbearable costs.

A just-published report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health says that welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at over US$4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2 per cent of global economic output. We are also threating our food and water supplies. Over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning the fields where we grow our food and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people. These are also the habitat to fish, birds and other species.

The World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths worldwide – about 12.6 million people in 2012 – are due to environmental causes. Air pollution is the biggest killer, claiming 6.5 million lives. Over 90 per cent of pollution deaths take place in developing countries, often causing the most harm amongst poor populations.

The evidence is clear. Pollution matters. It affects us all – including the birds and the bees and other species that are at risk from the damage caused. Planetary boundaries are being reached. So change we must.

As with any change, there are also major opportunities. As the head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, outlines in his report, Towards a pollution-free planet, tackling pollution provides a chance to innovate and become more competitive, but also more caring of others.

This report will be presented at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, at the beginning of December, when governments, civil society, international organizations and the private sector come together to specifically look at pollution and ways to reduce it.

The next wave of action begins at the UN Environment Assembly, but it doesn’t end there.

Mr. Solheim’s message is clear: we need political leadership, partnerships and the right policies. We need to adopt a culture that supports responsible production and does not hold up unrestrained consumption as an aspirational way of life that trumps our care of the commons. We need to invest big to transform, also bringing in the private sector to back clean growth and low-pollution opportunities.

Investments in clean energy, public transport, electric vehicles and resource efficient agriculture and industry can make a huge difference to pollution levels, and bring in long-term returns better insulated against resource and climate shocks.

We are seeing this process accelerating. The rapidly falling cost of energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, means that each year we see record new installations of clean power: 138GW in 2016, compared to 127.5GW in 2015, for an investment level 23 per cent lower. This is a clear indication of an ongoing transformation to more sustainable pathways.

We need system-wide shifts in our economies. Countries leading these shifts will reap the greatest benefits to their people. They will suffer a lower pollution burden and be more competitive, with healthier children, greater equity, and balance with nature.

The next wave of action begins at the UN Environment Assembly, but it doesn’t end there.

Each of us has a role to play towards a pollution-free planet. Ordinary citizens can keep an eye on how and what they consume, and what they do with their waste. Industry can account for the costs of pollution in design, material sourcing and pricing. Communities – faith, indigenous, and other – can bring their own perspectives to the redesign of our models. Governments can integrate pollution prevention into national and local planning for the longer-term well-being of people and our planet.

We did this to ourselves. And only we can fix it.

Sign the pledge and join the global movement to #BeatPollution.