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With extreme air pollution events on the rise, global efforts to reduce pollution and its effects will receive an advocacy boost when, for the first time ever, the world marks the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on 7 September.
Adopted by a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2019, the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies – whose observance is facilitated by the UN Environment Progamme (UNEP) – stresses the importance of and urgent need to raise public awareness at all levels and to promote and facilitate actions to improve air quality. The Republic of Korea led global efforts to create this new International Day of Clean Air for blue skies and will host an event to start celebrations.
This challenge requires decisive action on the part of governments, businesses and communities to end reliance on fossil fuels in favour of clean affordable renewable energy.António Guterres
In many parts of the world extreme air pollution events have become a seasonal phenomenon, almost as reliable as the monsoon or autumn foliage. In early November, New Delhi and other cities in northern India experienced levels of air pollution that cancelled flights and kept people masked and indoors. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Thai capital, Bangkok, these events occur in January and February. In California and Australia, summer wildfires are being turbocharged by climate change, destroying habitat, and covering vast areas in a choking haze.
These are examples of the extreme impacts of a crisis that affects us all – air pollution affects human, animal and planetary health, with an estimated 7 million people dying prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution. Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally. Each year. Many millions more living with these diseases suffer a substantial amount of disability.
“Around the world, nine out of every ten people breathe unclean air,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for the Day. “The extent of this challenge requires decisive action on the part of governments, businesses and communities to end reliance on fossil fuels in favour of clean affordable renewable energy. On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, let us commit to no new coal for cleaner, greener economies and better health for all.”
I hope this event provides an important milestone in the global efforts to harness solution-based actions for cleaner air.His Excellency Moon Jae-in
Air pollution not only threatens the health of people but also has negative impacts on plants and ecosystems. Ozone air pollution alone is responsible for 52 million tons of global crop losses annually. Air pollution also drives the climate crisis with many greenhouse gases and air pollutants coming from the same sources, meaning air pollution is not only bad human for health and quality of life today, but also makes the future less safe for coming generations.
His Excellency Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, said: “I am very pleased to celebrate the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, which was adopted at the UN General Assembly last year. I hope this event would help enhance global public awareness of the transboundary air pollution and provides an important milestone in the global efforts to harness solution-based actions for cleaner air.”
The good news is there are cost-effective, practical solutions available today to reduce air pollution. Air pollution does not respect international borders and countries must work together to prioritise air pollution reduction measures and invest in clean air solutions; research shows that renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever.
The International Day of Clean Air for blue skies calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a provide a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including actions like the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.
“Air pollution is a huge environmental risk to human health. It has a disproportionate impact on the poor. The economic costs are mounting – whether through healthcare bills, lost productivity, reduced crop yields or the eroded competitiveness of cities,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “COVID-19 lockdowns have shown that a cleaner sky is possible. That people are willing to listen to science. That we can act quickly to protect human health. We must take similar urgent action to lift the smog of air pollution. If we do, we can save millions of lives and billions of dollars each year.”
“In the face of global challenges posed by air pollution, climate change, social and economic inequalities, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have a chance to build back better,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “Many governments have already taken steps to align health, air pollution and climate policies. Now is the time to rethink how we organize our societies, our cities, our transportation, and how we cook and heat our homes – for health’s sake.”
The first International Day of Clean Air and blue skies will be marked by a number of events around the world, including the official opening, which will be officiated by President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea; the International Forum of Clean Air for blue skies, hosted by Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General and current Chairman of Korea’s National Council on Climate and Air Quality and a UNEP event led by Executive Director Inger Andersen, who will be joined by Korea’s Minister for Environment, Cho Myung-Rae and WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. More details on these and more events around the world here.
The facilitation of the 2020 International Day of Clean Air for blue skies was supported by funding from GIZ. Coordination and planning for the day was led by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
Ban Ki-moon, the 8th UN Secretary-General and current Chairman of National Council on Climate and Air Quality of the Republic of Korea stated: “The UN resolution for the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies was passed within just three months, which demonstrates exceptionally high interest and desire of the international community for clean air and blue skies. We must use this positive momentum as a springboard for concerted, joint action to tackle air pollution and climate change, given the transboundary nature thereof.”
Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat: “Air pollution and climate change are fundamentally intertwined issues. Many sources of air pollution are also significant sources of greenhouse gases and many air pollutants are also powerful climate forcers. This is why we need an integrated approach to focus on actions and policies that result in outcomes that benefit both air pollution and climate change goals.”
Jane Burston, Executive Director, Clean Air Fund: “Clean air is a human right, yet 9 in 10 of us are breathing air that is damaging our health. Over the last five years only around $300m has been contributed in global grant funding to tackle air pollution, far below the billions spent annually by foundations and development agencies globally. We need to maximise collaboration – and increase funding - to achieve clean air for all in the fastest possible time.”
David Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment said it was time to recognise clean air as a basic human right: “Air pollution clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Urgent action from governments across the world is needed. Not only do we have an opportunity to save tens of millions of lives and trillions of dollars in the next decade by reducing air pollution, we have a moral obligation to do so.”
Olga Algayerova, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said: “Air pollutants, travelling through our atmosphere, can harm people and the environment even thousands of kilometres from their point of emissions. To be effective, action on air pollution must be taken at all levels, from the local and national scales, to – critically – the international levels. We share one atmosphere, and we must tackle this problem together.”
Christoph Wolff, Head of Shaping the Future of Mobility, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum said: “The first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies comes at a crucial moment – the lockdown measures to contain coronavirus transmission have had positive short-term effects on the environment due to drastic reductions in industrial, commuting and travel activity around the globe. However, air pollution is bouncing back as economies restart at speed and governments lift measures. This is an important window to capitalize on heightened public and political awareness of air pollution. To do otherwise risks stalling progress on the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. All stakeholders must resist the pressure to go back to the old normal and work to achieve a green recovery to protect the health and livelihoods of current and future generations. The World Economic Forum newly formed Alliance for Clean Air aims to bring together different sectors and organisation types to share facts, best practice, work through the barriers to action, and have a place for public-private partnerships to be developed.”
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